FORT MYERS, FLA. – Michael Pineda was not with the Twins at Comerica Park in Detroit on Sept. 25. He was at his home in Minneapolis — the result of him violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy and serving a suspension.
So he was hundreds of miles away when the Twins clinched the American League Central title and celebrated in the visitor’s clubhouse. He was gone from the team, but not forgotten.
While he watched the celebration on television, his phone rang. It was Marwin Gonzalez, who FaceTimed Pineda into the middle of the celebration.
“I appreciated the moment and said, ‘Thank you for thinking of me,’ ” Pineda said. “I’m watching the game and I’m almost crying when I see everybody [on the phone] after the game.”
“I say, ‘Wow, that’s my team.’ That’s my team.”
It reminded him how much he likes playing for the Twins, the atmosphere in the clubhouse and the chance to reach the playoffs. He wanted to return to the club in 2020. Despite his having 39 games yet to serve on his 60-game suspension, the Twins were willing to bring him back and signed him to a two-year, $20 million contract. He’s scheduled to earn $10 million in 2020 but will lose around $2.1 million in salary because of the suspension.
Pineda said he was excited when his agent told him the Twins were interested in bringing him back.
“It was a little frustrating for me,” Pineda said. “Everybody was working hard and helping the team make the playoffs. When you have the opportunity to make the playoffs, then something happens and I’m not there, I felt a little sad.”
Pineda was suspended for testing positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic that can be used to mask the presence of performance-enhancing drugs. It cost him $984,000 of his $8 million salary in 2019. He also was in range of another $1.5 million in bonuses. The penalty normally carries an 80-game suspension, but Pineda was able to prove that he took the diuretic to lose weight, so the punishment was reduced to 60 games.
The Twins said that once he showed he wasn’t taking PEDs, it was easier to sign Pineda, who was 11-5 with a 4.01 ERA and pitching as well as any Twins starter at the time of his suspension. He had shaken off early struggles with his slider and was 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA over his last nine starts. After giving up 14 home runs over his first 10 starts, he gave up just nine over his last 16 outings. If the Twins can get the second-half version of Pineda, it will boost their chances of repeating as division champs.
Pineda is working out with the other pitchers and catchers at the CenturyLink Sports Complex, with position players set to join them Monday. Because he will be unable to rejoin the Twins until May 10 at the earliest, his training program will be adjusted for a May debut.
“We’re going to utilize spring training a little differently for him,” said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations. “It just doesn’t make sense to try to get him ready for a major league game on March 26. We’ll make sure that we take this time to do some things to get him prepared for when he is going to pitch.”
He’ll likely remain in Florida when the team breaks camp and heads to Oakland for the season opener. He will be allowed to start a minor league rehabilitation assignment a couple of weeks before his suspension is completely served.
If fans want to see him throw, they probably will have to walk over to the minor league side of the complex.
“He’ll get outings, he’ll see hitters on the back field,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s not allowed to pitch in — if they’re selling a ticket, I don’t think he’s allowed to be out there and throwing — but he’s going to get as much work in as anybody else, and then he’ll face as many hitters as he needs on his rehab assignment.”
Once he returns, Pineda will join a rotation that includes, if healthy, righthanders Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi. Homer Bailey and Kenta Maeda. Things will get interesting a month later, when lefthander Rich Hill is expected to complete rehabilitation following elbow surgery and be ready to enter the rotation.
Pineda said he can’t wait to be with his teammates at Target Field again, that he wants to see new third baseman Josh Donaldson hit home runs and just be back where he never wanted to leave.
“I experienced a lot last year,” Pineda said, “and I love how the people here tried to take care of me. I have a lot of good friends here, so I feel like I really wanted to go back to Minnesota.”