It might be a stretch to say Michael Pineda was pitching like an ace before being hit with a season-ending suspension. But it's definitely no stretch to say that he had become the team's best starter, and was shaping up as a credible choice to start Game 1 of a playoff series.
Now, Big Mike is back, on a deal that seems almost too good to be true.
When the Twins originally signed Pineda, almost exactly two years ago, the appeal was obvious: frontline upside at a very good value, with the caveat of a built-in delay. Now, the same dynamics are essentially at play, except the wait is much shorter and the payoff is much less theoretical.
This time around, the Twins aren't gambling on Pineda returning after a full year off and multiple surgery recoveries. He was healthy and strong before the suspension dropped in September, and while no one would frame his costly lapse as a good thing, there is a clear benefit in terms of workload management.
Pineda threw 96 innings for the Yankees in 2017 before requiring Tommy John surgery. He spent most of 2018 on the rehab trail, totaling only 12 innings in the minors before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Due to this lack of build-up, the Twins were very cautious with the right-hander's workload in 2019 – he reached triple-digit pitch counts only twice in 26 starts, and had multiple phantom stints on the injured list – but despite these efforts, he was on track to approach his previous career high (175 IP, in 2016).
At that point, you're worried about how the arm is going to hold up in the highest-stress of settings – the postseason – while entering unprecedented territory for innings pitched.
Now, with this prorated deal, the innings management basically takes care of itself. Pineda's late start means his innings cap for the regular season is around 150, helping him stay strong into October.
With two reigning All-Star starters already locked in, and plenty of flexibility to add more, the Twins can now view Pineda as an impactful low-cost reinforcement for the back of the rotation rather than a critical linchpin for the top.
It took Pineda a while to settle into his groove this year – understandable given the layoff – but after shaking off some early long-ball issues, his consistency was unparalleled on the staff. After the end of April, Pineda posted a 3.46 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 117 innings, adding a spectacular 118-to-22 K/BB ratio. He allowed more than three earned runs just twice in 20 starts over this span, with the Twins going 13-7.
That overall level of performance would make Pineda one of the best No. 3/4 starters for any rotation in the American League. But it sure feels like he has another level, and was just beginning to unlock it before his season reached a sudden halt. In his final 10 starts he went 6-1 with a 2.88 ERA. In his two September turns just before the suspension, he struck out 19 over 12 frames.
The Twins' offseason will be a massive letdown if they don't add at least one more starter who slots ahead of Pineda on paper. But it's entirely possible Pineda emerges as a No. 2 or even No. 1 caliber piece in the rotation – I mean, he's already pretty much done it, ranking among the AL's top dozen starters in fWAR over his final 20 starts of 2019.
Pineda's 5.0 K/BB ratio in 2019 was bested by only these eight bona fide studs: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shane Bieber, Zack Greinke, Walker Buehler, Jacob deGrom.
For anyone who feels a player is irredeemably sullied after a PED-related ban, I call your attention to Jorge Polanco and Nelson Cruz, who moved past such mistakes to become arguably the team's two most valuable players in 2019. Pineda's transgression was deemed by the league to be clearly accidental.
There's really no reason think it'll be a further concern. But if it does, or – more likely – Pineda's longtime durability issues resurface, the Twins are well-set with a contract that secures the mountainous hurler at an effectively trivial cost through 2021, at which point he'll be naturally built back up to a 200-IP workload.
Pineda's deal almost certainly won't be the biggest move made by the Twins this offseason, but I'd wager we look back on it as their best.
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