Pineda on pace to be Yankees' fifth starter

Oft-injured righty is healthy, ready to pitch for Yankees in 2014
03/16/2014 11:38 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Michael Pineda, who has not pitched in the Majors since 2011, is on pace to be the Yankees' No. 5 starter.(AP)
TAMPA, Fla. - Michael Pineda will make his second start - and third appearance - of the spring on Wednesday, and on Sunday, he threw a short bullpen session ahead of that.

Business as usual, as in working on a regular starter's schedule, is welcoming news both to the Yankees and Pineda, who has not thrown a major-league pitch since 2011 because of a shoulder injury.

It's now Pineda's third season with the Yankees, and even though he's never suited up in a regular-season game, manager Joe Girardi has noted that he thinks Pineda has shown a lot of improvement over the years.

Still, Girardi isn't quite sure what he has in the 6-foot-7 righty.

"It's hard to tell because we didn't see a whole lot the first year we had him. We never saw what we saw in Seattle the whole spring (of 2012)," Girardi said. "He was struggling, he wasn't feeling great, and his velocity wasn't as high as it is now, so it was tough. He was more of a work in progress back then, but he's had a couple years to get going, and it's improved."

And it's amazing, Girardi said, how sometimes, down time like that can help a young player out.

"I think he figured some things out. When you're rehabbing down here in Tampa and not doing what you want to do, you have some time to think about things," the skipper said. "I think he's grown up some, definitely. I think sometimes when you're a young player, you're learning what you have to do to be successful; you can see the people that are pitching in the Majors, see the work they put in, and talk to some people. And, I'm not saying that he did, but sometimes you can take for granted your health - you've always felt good, so why would there be concern? But the first time something arises, you learn that 'hey, I have to protect myself.'"

"It's my third year, so I'm more comfortable and confident, and I know everybody here," Pineda said of the journey. "I'm stronger and in better shape right now too."

Pineda's velocity isn't what it once was, at least not yet, as he reached only 93 miles-per hour a couple of times in his first spring start last Friday. To Girardi, who said Friday "he's getting closer" in the velocity department, that's a win. But Pineda's biggest concern is that no matter the velocity, he's able to pitch his game and come out healthy.

"I'm letting it go. The best thing is my shoulder is feeling good, and that's where I want to be. I want to be able to pitch and compete," he said. "I don't know what my velocity was, but it feels good."

"He looks great and he's working downhill. That's a pretty good indication that he's feeling good throwing the baseball," added catcher Brian McCann. "I judge it off 'if he needs to get a strike, can he get it?' When a guy's behind and he can locate a fastball down and away to get back in the count, that's a big sign that he's feeling good."

Pineda's also working on his secondary arsenal, saying he's much more confident in a changeup that these days has better movement, and that's just another weapon that can make him dominant.

"He's got some natural cut on his pitches, and he's just an uncomfortable at bat," McCann said. "You're not sitting there getting good looks on him. His size, his cut on the ball…you have to cover both sides of the plate and up and down as a hitter. He makes you look in all quadrants."

"He's got deception, and he's locating the ball, and it's hard to pick up," added Girardi.

Of course, with roughly two weeks to go in spring training, Pineda still isn't a lock to make the team. He's battling David Phelps, and possibly still Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno, for the final spot in the rotation, and even if he makes it, there's concern that he won't be a full-season option.

Pineda pitched 171 innings in 2011, but seemed to fatigue down the stretch and threw just 58 of those innings after the All-Star break. He had never pitched even 140 innings in the minors prior to that and only threw 23 1/3 innings at Triple-A last season before being shut down. It's likely that any assignment - in the Bronx or elsewhere - would require a management of innings to ensure optimal effectiveness.

To his credit, Pineda wants to pitch, but knows long-term health is always more important than trying to do too much in the moment.

"If I feel great and can go every fifth day, I want to; that's why I'm here. But Joe's the manager, so he has control," Pineda said. "Whatever decision he makes, I'll be happy, because I know they want to take care of me. I want to do my job, but whatever the situation, I don't have control of that."

That's a bridge, however, Girardi will cross when he comes to it - because for now, it almost certainly seems like Pineda's the favorite to be taking the hill every fifth day.

"He's taking steps in the right direction, and I want to see that continue," Girardi said. "It would be important for us (to have him in the rotation), I can tell you that."

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