As the Twins prepare for the 2019 season, the most important factor in their success is the development of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. The next most important factor? Well, that’s a subject for debate — and we’ll center it around a pitcher who hasn’t thrown an inning yet for the Twins.
First take: Michael Rand
So here’s a strange thing: On more than one occasion lately, when thinking about the Twins’ 2019 rotation, I’ve forgotten about Michael Pineda.
He signed last offseason for two years, $10 million — but he was coming off Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch for the Twins in 2018. I dare say if the Twins at the winter meetings this week signed Pineda to a one-year, $8 million deal, there would be a certain amount of excitement.
Instead, he’s being overlooked. But Pineda has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his career and should benefit from pitching in Target Field instead of Yankee Stadium. If he has a bounceback year, the top of the Twins’ rotation suddenly looks a lot better and the Twins would be far more dangerous.
Twins beat writer Phil Miller: So we’re debating whether Pineda or Jose Berrios starts Game 1 of the ALDS? I’m all for imagining things going right for a change at Target Field, and when healthy, Pineda owns a fastball that feeds that intrigue.
But Twins fans probably should regard his presence in the rotation with curiosity, not excitement. We’re talking about a player who has been in the big leagues for eight seasons — but has been healthy enough to pitch in only five of them. Shoulder surgeries cost him the 2012-13 seasons, he had elbow ligament replacement surgery that sidelined him all of 2018, and needed knee surgery during his rehab in August. And yes, the Tommy John operation will be 18 months behind him by Opening Day, but I need only two words to caution you about expecting too much: Lance Lynn.
Durability aside, the biggest hesitation about Pineda is this: He has allowed more than a hit an inning in each of his last three seasons, and it’s not just bad luck: His batting average on balls in play was just .302 in 2017, he walked only 21 hitters in 96 innings, yet his ERA was 4.39. In fact, he hasn’t kept his ERA below 4.37 since 2014, and while some of it is due to Yankee Stadium’s pinball dimensions — he’s allowed 49 homers in 47 starts there — he has never lived up to the staff-ace promise he showed as a rookie.
Rand: I think curiosity is a good way to put it. Pineda is definitely a guy whose traditional stats have never seemed to match up with his stuff. I reckon the Twins are hoping the combination of good outfield defense (hello, Buxton) and getting out of Yankee Stadium will help Pineda.
If you go back to his last full season, 2016, he had an xFIP (expected run prevention, independent of defense) of 3.30 — eighth best in the majors.
Miller: OK, I’m sold. Even with his flaws, the Twins have had few pitchers in recent years with his kind of upside. Buying his recovery season by funding his rehab year was a smart gamble, whatever the result.
The crazy part of the transaction, though, is that if Pineda truly returns to form, or something close to it, he probably won’t be a Twin for long. Pineda at his best would almost certainly make him one of the most desirable free-agent pitchers next winter, receiving contract offers that outbid the Twins. The greater he is, in effect, the more temporary his stay. World Series or bust!
Rand: Shhhh. The only time something good ever happens in local sports is when we least expect it.
Final word: Miller
So maybe you should go back to forgetting about him?