The Seattle Mariners could have opted to keep Michael Pineda in the minor leagues to start the season, likely saving themselves millions of dollars (due to arbitration time). 

Instead the team opted to reward the 22-year-old righty after he dominated in spring training (2.12 ERA, 15 K, 6 BB over 17.0 innings) by naming him the fifth starter.

Finances aside, it really should have been an easy decision for the Mariners to make. 

Outside of Felix Hernandez (and perhaps Erik Bedard, though the chances of him staying healthy appear slim), it is not like the team is swamped with viable starting alternatives. 

Do the names Doug Fister, Luke French or Jason Vargas instill fear in many opposing hitters?

Pineda’s 2010 season was split between Double- and Triple-A, posting the following lines:

  • Double-A: 2.22 ERA, 78 K, 17 BB over 77.0 IP
  • Triple-A: 4.76 ERA, 76 K, 17 BB over 62.1 IP

Before we get too worked up about the “regression” at Triple-A, there are a few points to keep in mind: It was the Pacific Coast League, which, as we all know, is a notorious hitter’s league.  As a 21-year-old it wouldn’t be overly surprising to see him struggle getting his feet wet at that level.

You also have to take into consideration that his 4.76 ERA came despite a 1.14 WHIP, 11.0 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9.  In fact, his BABIP against him at the level was .312, a very believable number.  In other words, despite the ugly ERA, the other peripherals were sparkling and it was more poor luck than anything else. 

Obviously, the Mariners are likely to handle him with kid gloves throughout the season.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a few starts skipped, when the schedule allows it.  He also will likely be held to an innings limit, having thrown just 139.1 innings in 2010. 

It just gets magnified when you factor in a pair of stints on the DL in ’09 due to elbow strains.  The team is just not going to want to overwork him and risk his long-term potential.

I would imagine that 170-175 innings would be the limit, so those in head-to-head leagues will want to keep that in mind.  When your fantasy title is on the line, Pineda may very well be shut down.

However, there is no questioning his potential upside.  Baseball America, who ranked him as the Mariners’ No. 2 prospect prior to the season (behind Dustin Ackley), said the following: “Pineda has the size, stuff and control to pitch at the top of a rotation. He throws a crisp fastball that sits at 93-97 mph and gets as high as 101 with explosive life and occasional heavy sink.”

Yes, there are things to be worried about, but from a pure “stuff” perspective, there is no reason to be concerned.  Pineda has the potential to be a fantasy ace in short order and, outside of the shallowest of formats, should be considered a must-own option in all formats. 

However, I would proceed with caution in the early going.  His first start is scheduled for April 5 in Texas against a high-powered Rangers offense.  Rookie starters are always a tough play in their major league debut, and this setting just makes it even tougher.

Be cautious, but you should reap the benefits soon enough.

What are your thoughts on Pineda?  Would you play him in his major league debut?  What are you expecting from him in 2011?


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