The Montero-Pineda trade: A dissenting opinion

(Montero by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty; Pineda by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Nearly a decade ago, in December of 2003, Brian Cashman sent Nick Johnson, a player who had not only previously been the Yankees’ number-one hitting prospect but the team’s top prospect overall for three years running (along with Juan Rivera, who at the time of the deal appeared to be the team’s top hitting prospect, and Randy Choate), to the Montreal Expos for Javier Vazquez. At that point in time, Vazquez had six Major League seasons under his belt, was coming off a 2003 campaign that saw him post a 3.23 ERA/3.31 FIP/3.41 xFIP (74 ERA-/74 FIP-/78 xFIP-), a 5th-best-in-MLB 9.40 K/9, 2.22 BB/9, and was widely considered one of the best young starters in the game (between 1998 and 2003 he was the 12th-most valuable pitcher by fWAR in all of MLB).

The 2004 Yankees had a severe starting rotation problem, in that three of their five rotation stalwarts from the 103-win 2003 squad — Roger Clemens (4.9 FWAR), Andy Pettitte (5.5 fWAR) and David Wells (4.1 fWAR) — weren’t returning. Prior to the Vazquez deal the projected Yankee rotation for ’04 was ace Mike Mussina, a coming-back-from-missing-the-entire-2003-season Jon Lieber, the recently-acquired-for-Jeff-Weaver Kevin Brown, Jose Contreras and I guess Jorge De Paula. The team pretty clearly needed to make a move for a starting pitcher, especially after missing out on Curt Schilling, and I remember thinking at the time (as did, from what I recall, seemingly everyone else) that Vazquez — as a young, dominating, strikeout-heavy righty who could front the team’s rotation for years to come — fit the team’s needs perfectly. I know I was sad to see longtime fanboy-crush Nick Johnson go, especially after all the talk that he was supposed to be the second coming of Don Mattingly, but with Jason Giambi continuing to block The Stick at first, he (and Rivera, who I didn’t think twice about losing) seemed like a reasonable cost of doing business.

Unfortunately, despite Brian Cashman’s best-laid plans in rebuilding a starting rotation that led all of MLB with a ridiculous 25.4 fWAR (for comparison’s sake, the 2011 Phillies amassed 25.8 fWAR), the 2004 Yankees got 14.5 fWAR out of the rotation, and Vazquez found himself run out of town after one tough season, though he’d eventually get a second chance to redeem himself six years later. At the end of the day, the trade worked out pretty horrendously for the Yanks, who got 2.1 total fWAR out of Javy in the two seasons he wore pinstripes, while Stick and Rivera have combined for 22.7 fWAR since 2004, though the former has of course been arguably the most injury-prone player in baseball, while I doubt think anyone thinks the latter would have been much of a difference-maker for the late-aughts teams.

I revisit this particular moment in Yankee history because it’s the closest thing I have to a benchmark for processing the blockbuster Jesus MonteroMichael Pineda trade (not to mention the stealth Hiroki Kuroda signing) that unfortunately broke on the Friday evening of a holiday weekend (in the midst of my watching “Moneyball” of all things), preventing me from fully fleshing my thoughts out about it until now.

To say this came out of nowhere would be a massive understatement. I’ve been operating under the assumption that the Yankees’ too-quiet offseason was in preparation for an all-out blitz next winter in which the potential free-agent pitcher crop includes the drool-worthy likes of Cole Hamels, Matt Cain and Zack Greinke, among others, and at no point was I expecting that Jesus Montero’s bat would not be in the 2012 Yankee lineup as the starting designated hitter.

Not only that, but being that I was in the middle of watching a movie my dad was the one who broke the news to me via a phone call, and no discredit to my dad, but as I’m generally plugged-in to what’s going on in the world of the Yankees pretty much all day every day, I was even more shocked that I hadn’t heard the news prior to his knowledge of the deal. When he first uttered the phrase “Mariners pitcher” I hoped for the best and thought the Yankees finally somehow acquired Felix Hernandez.

However, I quickly learned that the crown jewel of the Yankee farm system, a player that, similar to Nick Johnson, has been both the Yankees’ best hitting and overall prospect for multiple seasons, was instead dealt for Pineda, a hulking, fireballing rookie who had an excellent inaugural season (and who, in yet another parallel to Vazquez circa 2003, is also coming off a 9.0-plus K/9 that ranked among the top 10 in all of MLB in 2011), but didn’t immediately strike me as appropriate compensation for a hitter whose absolute best-case scenario could be Miguel Cabrera. To put it gently, my initial reaction to the deal was less-than-favorable.

Adding another layer of strangeness to the gut-wrenching I experienced in the immediate aftermath of learning about this deal is the fact that I’ve made no secret of my endorsement of the majority of the major moves Cash has made over the years. I loved the Curtis Granderson deal and liked the Home Run Javy trade both times, but this feeling of disagreement with a significant trade is rather foreign to me. It’s going to be weird to tweet “should of kept Montero” with utter sincerity the first time he hits a home run off the Yankees.

Now, we all know comping anyone to Cabrera is the epitome of an overzealous expectation, but even though Montero is unlikely to reach that particular historically-good level of hitting, his bat has been near-universally regarded as an impact, middle-of-the-order force, one that doesn’t seem outrageous to expect possible .300/.400/.500 lines from in the future. I realize both the opportunity cost and scarcity of acquiring a young, cost-controlled starter in Pineda, especially when compared to adding an offensive-oriented player, but more than four days in and I’m still not entirely sold on this being the right move.

For one, if the Yankees were going to move a premier hitting piece for a pitcher, I’d have preferred it have been for more of a sure thing. There’s no question Pineda had a great 2011, and while the oft-cited supposed “second-half decline” has been debunked, and I’m aware of the fact that were he still a prospect, he’d be at the top of the Yankees’ top ten list, the fact that he is primarily a righthanded two-pitch pitcher with a bit of a flyball problem coming to Yankee Stadium concerns me. I understand that many feel that Pineda has #1 starter upside, but that upside can only be realized if he is able to develop a functional changeup to help him combat lefties, and as we’ve seen from several of the Yankees’ own starters, the change is one of the hardest pitches to learn.

In Pineda’s favor, his two primary weapons — one of the fastest heaters in the game along with one of the nastiest sliders — are most definitely for real, and pairing the high-strikeout righthanded Pineda with the high-strikeout lefthanded CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation should form one of the nastier 1-2 punches in the game today. As our own Mike wisely noted via e-mail during the weekend, “I don’t love the trade, but I don’t think they got hosed or anything. Much easier to find a high-end bat than an arm. The first time Pineda throws seven shutout innings with double digit strikeouts, we’ll be cool.” I couldn’t agree more, and I’m sure I’ll forget all about Montero once I see Pineda start throwing.

However, the primary issue I’m having with accepting this deal is that it subtracts what was supposed to be a major source of offense from the lineup for a pitcher who has but one strong year under his belt, whereas Vazquez circa 2003 had well established himself as one of the game’s elite pitchers. Many have noted that the Yankee offense got through last season just fine without Montero’s bat for most of the year, and I certainly can’t dispute that. Still, we got a taste of what Montero might be able to do in 69 scorching-hot September plate appearances, and though he hit well above his head, he appeared to be every bit as good as advertised. For those looking to discount a September cup of coffee due to supposed lessened competition between roster expansion and teams playing out the string, the majority of Montero’s appearances came against clubs with playoff aspirations, not to mention the fact that the Yankees didn’t exactly hammer the competition during the season’s last month, posting their lowest monthly team wOBA in a decade.

The 2012 Yankees should again be a compelling offensive force, but depending on which projection system you prefer, Montero might have been anywhere from the 2nd to 5th-best hitter on next year’s team. Robinson Cano, the team’s current best player and a prospect no one saw coming (career .278/.331/.425 in the minors), hit .297/.320/.458 during his debut season in pinstripes. Of the five currently available projection systems, Montero’s (career minor league line of .308/.366/.501) average projected line for next season is .279/.344/.489, .360 wOBA. Now, not everyone becomes as good as Robinson Cano, but there’s a decent chance Montero eclipses Cano’s career line of .308/.347/.496, .359 wOBA in his first full season. Who knows, maybe Montero turns into the next Ruben Rivera and not Robbie Cano. The underlying point of all of this is to say that Montero may be the best hitter Brian Cashman has ever traded, and while there are no sure things in baseball, Pineda is as much of a risk as Montero if not moreso, due to the highly volatile nature of developing young pitchers.

Now the team is forced to scramble to fill the DH role with the remains of the offseason, and while Carlos Pena is clearly the most ideal fit, it sounds as though he may be too expensive, and so the Yankees sift through the carcasses of old friends Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and others, while also telling people they might consider using strikeout-machine Jorge Vazquez in the DH role. One of the numerous points in favor of acquiring Pineda was that acquiring hitting is always easier than acquiring pitching, which is true in a vacuum; but the new 2012 austerity Yankees may now in fact be tapped out for something as simple as a reasonable DH upgrade. I’d expect a lot of my hesitation regarding giving up Montero would fade in the event they acquired a real designated hitter, but if not I’m having a hard time accepting what currently looks to be a slightly diminished offensive attack on paper, no offense to Andruw Jones.

Moving on, many have pointed out that this deal was probably a clear win for the Yanks if Seattle can’t use Montero as a catcher, as they will have traded a #2 starter with five years of team control for a player without a position. If Montero is ultimately indeed primarily deployed as a DH, that will no doubt hurt his overall value, but if the bat becomes what many hope it can become, I think he’ll mitigate his lack of fielding value. No one in Boston is complaining about David Ortiz’s contributions to the Red Sox despite not donning a glove with any regularity since 2004. I’ve also read that there are still folks in the Yankee organization that view Montero as a catcher, to which I call BS on — there’s no way the team would have traded a potential catcher with Montero’s bat for anything other than an absolute number-one starter. But I’m sure the Yankees saying so publicly helped Seattle rationalize this deal internally.

I’ve seen others note that this is the ultimate “win-now” move for the Yankees, especially given that the window to win a championship with the current core of offensive players is likely closing. There’s probably some validity to this, given that the Yankee offense is primarily composed of hitters on the wrong side of 30, although Cashman’s done a rather commendable job of finding relatively younger players to replace aging ones — particularly in the outfield — and I’m not sure I’m sold on the idea that this particular group of Yankees only has so many more championship runs in it and that the Pineda move puts them over the edge. Does the Pineda move make them more scary right now? Absolutely. Does it make them that much better in a short playoff series? 100%. Would the team’s chances of future glory be compromised if they had waited until next offseason to reap the benefits of what could be a bumper crop of a free-agent pitching market instead of having to surrender one of the best hitting prospects they’ve ever had? I doubt it (though TYA’s Eric Schultz astutely notes that having Pineda in hand theoretically lessens the pressure of having to find a #1/#2-type next offseason, especially if some of the presumptive prize pitchers wind up signing extensions).

No one can argue that the prospective Yankee rotation for 2012 wasn’t full of question marks prior to Friday night, not too dis-similarly from the 2004 iteration’s predicament. Additionally, the team knows it got lucky to not only get through the 2011 season but secure the best record in the American League with the rotation it featured. I can’t blame Brian Cashman for wanting to upgrade what had been the team’s biggest weakness. But maybe the signing of Hiroki Kuroda would have been enough. All offseason we’ve been talking about adding Kuroda, and while a rotation of Sabathia-Kuroda-Nova-Garcia-Hughes/Burnett doesn’t look quite as good as Sabathia-Pineda-Kuroda-Nova-whoever, I still think the former would’ve been plenty competitive.

The Yankees now have a ton of starting pitching depth, although the Pineda trade certainly reveals the team’s true feelings regarding Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, either of whom many now expect to be dealt; and it also reveals to a lesser extent the team’s feelings about the myriad fourth-starter-upside types they’ve been stockpiling at AAA, including Hector Noesi, who was of course part of this big trade. I know no one’s shedding any tears over Noesi, but I was looking forward to seeing what he had to offer as a starter. And I haven’t even gotten to discuss Jose Campos, whose upside seems to excite many prospect-watchers but who at this point simply remains a lottery ticket.

My judgment regarding this deal remains clouded by emotion; I imagine this is similar to how I’d have felt had Phil Hughes been traded during the 2007-2008 offseason. Still, many of the top analysts in the business have mostly been on board with the transaction being a net positive for the Yankees, while my blogging cohorts seem to be slightly more mixed, though some feel more positively about it than others.

As I noted earlier I know I’ll fall in love with Pineda soon enough and I’m very excited to start delving into the PITCHf/x data, which I’m sure will uncover even more reasons to be excited about his acquisition. However, I’ll do it with a heavy heart for Jesus, and will hold out hope that the deal — even though I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on it — ends up working out as favorably as possible for the Yankees.

Open Thread: Don Zimmer

(Photo via USA Today)

If you’re my age, then you don’t remember Don Zimmer as anything more than the Yankees bench coach during the early-Joe Torre years and a current special advisor in the Rays front office. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though, the man has lived a baseball lifetime.

Zim started his playing career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954, but only after a pitch to the temple nearly killed him in the minors. He spent what amounts to 13 days in a coma in 1953 before recovering to earn a cup of coffee the next year. He spent six years with the Dodgers (four in Brooklyn, two in Los Angeles), two years with the Cubs, half a season with the Mets, half a season with a Reds, another half a season with the Dodgers, two and a half years with the Washington Senators, and one year in Japan. A .235/.290/.372 career hitter, Zimmer played in the 1961 All-Star Game and was primarily a utility player before retiring after the 1966 season. He won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1955 and was part of the 120-loss Mets in 1962.

Once his playing days were over, Zim joining the coaching ranks. He did his time in the minors, then joined the Expos as their third base coach in 1971. He served the same role with the Padres and Red Sox before become the manager in Boston in 1976. The Sox went 411-304 during Zim’s 4+ years at the helm, which included their infamous 1978 collapse. He managed the Rangers in 1981 and 1982, did some coaching for the Yankees and Giants from 1983-1987, then managed the Cubs from 1988-1991. Zimmer coached with the expansion Rockies in the early-90’s before joining Torre’s staff in 1996. That is a lot of baseball.

Today is Zimmer’s 81st birthday, and 2012 will be his 64th year in baseball. He’s written two books and is the last former Brooklyn Dodger still working in baseball in some capacity. I’ll remember him for the helmet you see above (after Chuck Knoblauch hit him with a foul ball) and for the Red Sox brawl during the 2003 ALCS, when Pedro Martinez threw him to the ground. That’s just me though, there is no shortage of reasons to remember the guy.

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Here’s your open thread for this evening. All three hockey locals are in action tonight, but I sure hope you weren’t planning on watching any of the games if you’re a Time Warner customer (Update: The Rangers are on NBC Sports, formerly Versus. Hooray for that.). Still no MSG. Anyway, you folks know what to do, so have at it.

Yankees avoid arbitration with Joba, Robertson

The Yankees avoided arbitration with Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson by agreeing to one-year contracts, the team announced. Joba received approximately $1.675M (per Jon Heyman) his second time up for arbitration, a slight raise from the $1.4M he made last year. He would have cleared $2M if it wasn’t for the Tommy John surgery. Robertson signed for $1.6M with another $25k in incentives (per Heyman) his first time up for arbitration, a big raise from his near-league minimum salary.

Noon ET today was the deadline for teams and their eligible players to file arbitration salaries, and the trio of Russell Martin, Boone Logan, and Brett Gardner remain unsigned. Hearings start in February, but the two sides can still agree to a contract at any time. Here are MLBTR’s salary projections, if you’re curious. Phil Hughes agreed to a one-year deal and avoided arbitration yesterday.

Update: Heyman says Gardner filed for $3.2M while the Yankees filed $2.4M. They’ll probably split the difference and call it a deal, but Gardner’s arbitration case isn’t all that great because he’s a defense-first guy, and that doesn’t pay.

Update Part II: Heyman says Martin filed for $8.2M while the Yankees countered with $7M. Russ actually holds the salary record for first and second time eligible catchers. This is his fourth year of arbitration eligibility as a Super Two.

Update Part III: Jack Curry says Logan filed for $2.1M while the Yankees countered with $1.7M. Logan has a pretty decent arbitration case because of his low ERA (3.20 as a Yankee) and high strikeout rate (9.3 K/9 as a Yankee).

The Other Guy

Splitter! (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

It’s not often that a team can sign a starting pitcher to an eight-figure contract and have it be only the second biggest move of the day. That’s exactly what happened last Friday, and the Jesus MonteroMichael Pineda trade continues to overshadow the Hiroki Kuroda signing. The one-year, $10M deal will become official as soon as Kuroda takes and passes his physical, something that is expected to happen in the near future and without a problem.

As exciting as Pineda is, the Yankees needed a veteran guy to help stabilize a rotation that was shaky beyond CC Sabathia. Ivan Nova pitched very well in the second half last year but is still a guy with one big league season under his belt like Pineda. Freddy Garcia was solid as well in 2011, but his kitchen sink act could blow up at any moment. A.J. Burnett is a known quantity, and unfortunately that means he’s going to be below average. Phil Hughes is a total enigma. Kuroda helps provide that stability at a reasonable price.

It’s no secret that the Yankees have liked Kuroda for quite some time, dating back to the August waiver trade period in 2010. They reportedly considered him the second best pitcher on the free agent market last winter, but didn’t get a chance to pursue him because he re-upped with the Dodgers during the exclusive negotiating period. They made a push for Kuroda at last year’s trade deadline but couldn’t work out an agreement, but it wouldn’t have mattered since he invoked his no-trade clause and refused to come east and pitch for the Red Sox. Once the Dodgers pushed him out of the picture this offseason, he changed his mind and came the New York.

Kuroda will turn 37 next month, and he’s thrown at least 180 IP in three of his four seasons in MLB. The one exception was 2009, when an oblique strain shelved him for two months and a concussion (caused by this) cost him for another three weeks. In the two years since, he’s made 63 starts and thrown 398.1 IP. There’s little chance Kuroda will repeat the 3.23 ERA and 3.52 FIP he posted from 2010-2011 given the shift to the tougher ballpark in the tougher division, but adjusting upward half-a-run or so still gives us a ~3.80 ERA, ~4.00 FIP pitcher. Not an ace, but a valuable starter.

The transition to Yankee Stadium and the AL East is a very real issue, but it should help that Kuroda will be throwing to a catcher who knows him well. Russell Martin caught 71.8% of the right-hander’s innings while with the Dodgers from 2008-2010, so there’s certainly some familiarity there. As a true four-pitch guy — low-90’s four-seamer, low-90’s sinker, mid-80’s slider, mid-80’s splitter and a show-me high-70’s curve — with a bit of a reputation for pitching backwards, I’m sure he’ll appreciate having someone behind the plate that knows his stuff and what he likes to throw to certain hitters in certain counts. I don’t know how much it’ll help, but I have a hard time believing it won’t help in some way.

The trade for Pineda is a long-term move. The Yankees acquired him in hopes that he will contribute something now and develop into a dominant, top of the rotation starter down the road. Kuroda is just a band-aid, a short-term solution on a reasonable contract designed to improve the team’s chances of winning in 2012 and nothing more. He’s been successful during his first four years in MLB as a moderate strikeout (6.73 K/9 and 18.0 K%), low walk (2.10 K/9 and 5.6 BB%), and above-average ground ball (48.6%) pitcher, which is all the Yankees are asking him to be again next year. Kuroda won’t garner as much attention as Pineda, but he’s more important to the 2012 team.

Plenty of low-risk options available for DH

The free agent market brims with left-handed hitters who could play the role of part-time DH for the Yankees. The list comprises many household names, and each could provide the Yankees with quality at-bats in a part-time role. Each is also flawed, which is pretty standard for any remaining free agent (Prince Fielder excepting). Yet that could work in the Yankees’ favor. It means the players are likely open to a part-time role, which fits the Yankees’ needs well enough. It also means that they’ll likely fit into the $1 to $2 million budget the Yankees have reportedly set for the DH spot.

Even better: Most, if not all, of these candidates could sign minor league deals. That means all the upside for virtually no risk. Here they are, in the reverse order of preference.

Nick Johnson: Many, if not most, Yankees fans will retch upon seeing this. The last go-round with Johnson ended horribly. He came to the plate just 98 times and hit for extra bases just six times. He did walk a lot, as can be expected, but that’s about all he did. Last year Johnson rehabbed in the Indians system, though he didn’t even crack a .320 OBP at AAA. He also experienced wrist issues, again, earlier in the season. If the Yankees do want to give Johnson another look, it simply has to be in addition to someone else.

Dan Johnson: We all remember the other Johnson from his bottom of the ninth heroics in Game 162 last season. Johnson apparently has a penchant for this type of hit. They do call him The Great Pumpkin, after all, because he comes around once a year and hits a big homer, usually to the Red Sox peril. Problem is, he hasn’t really hit in the majors since 2007. He does clobber AAA, having produced a .445 wOBA in 2010 and a .374 wOBA in 2011. But that apparently doesn’t help his major league performance much. Again, he’s a fine option if there’s someone else ahead of him.

Hideki Matsui: We know that the Yankees have been in contact with Matsui, but they’ve likely been in contact with many other similar players as well. As Mike noted in that brief post, Matsui’s 2011 stunk pretty badly. He was stuck in Oakland, and his slow start did not help his case. At age 38, he could be all but finished in the bigs. But on a minor league deal he could be an interesting option. After all, he did have a decent 2010 season, particularly in the second half. Return him to the familiar confines of Yankee Stadium and limit his at-bats to right-handed pitchers, and he might have one more year left in him.

J.D. Drew: There is no doubt that Drew, now age 36, is in stark decline. After putting up two phenomenal years for the Red Sox in 2008 and 2009 he’s seen his numbers drop in the last two years, and last year particularly. Drew also spent considerable time on the DL last year. A platoon DH role could help mitigate some of that injury risk, but the declining numbers, particularly in terms of power, are a bit disconcerting. He gets bumped to the mid-tier because of his name value, his batting eye, and his ability to play the outfield if necessary. The Yanks would really have to believe that they can get a quality 400 PA out of him if they were to even sign him to a minor league deal.

Casey Kotchman: Last season the Rays signed Kotchman to a minor league deal, and that worked out exceedingly well for them. In 563 PA he produced a 125 wRC+, mainly on the strength of his .378 OBP. At the same time, much of that value came from his .306 batting average, which was almost 40 points higher than his career average. As expected of a left-handed hitter, he did handle righties quite a deal better than lefties, producing a 136 wRC+ against them. But unless Kotchman turned something around for real in 2011, it’s tough to get past his career 102 wRC+ against righties.

Raul Ibanez: There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Ibanez, whose 2012 will be his age-40 season. His numbers took a big dip in 2011, particularly his walk rate. He managed to walk in just 5.7 percent of his PA, his lowest rate since 1998 (when he came to the plate just 103 times). The good news is that he’s one year removed from a pretty decent season, and even in his poor season he hit righties well enough. In 2010 he was even better, with a 116 wRC+ against righties. He’s a risk, for sure, but if the Yankees can keep Ibanez fresh he could whale quite a few homers at Yankee Stadium.

Russell Branyan: This is my official endorsement for Branyan, who is the ideal candidate for a platoon DH role. His career 120 wRC+ against righties looks attractive enough, but it’s his .259 career ISO against righties that looks the most attractive. He’ll strike out his share, but he’ll also launch quite a few bombs — we’ve already seen two mammoth homers of his at Yankee Stadium. While last year was a down year, in 2010 Branyan produced a 137 wRC+ against righties, including 19 homers and 17 doubles in 322 PA. A return to that level, minus all PA against left-handed pitching, makes for an ideal fit. He and Andruw Jones would make a powerful and cost-effective DH platoon.

Again, every player on this list is flawed, some greatly so. Clearly they’d be better off with a more sure things, such as Carlos Pena. But if they really do have a budget of $1 to $2 million for a DH, one or more of these guys might be the way to go. They all have the potential to produce decent to very good numbers against right-handed pitching, which is just what the Yankees seek. That they’d all come on minor league deals makes them even more attractive, since that eliminates almost all of the risk. If the Yankees do not find a true righty-mashing DH, they’d do well enough with a Branyan or an Ibanez.

Introducing Michael Pineda

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The dust is still settling from Friday’s blockbuster trade, which will send Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners in exchange for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. All four players must still take their physicals, a bit of a formality required to make the trade official, and that should happen within a week or so. While all that is going on behind the scenes, let’s take a few minutes to get to know Pineda, the soon-to-be newest member of the Yankees’ starting rotation.

Pineda, who turns 23 tomorrow, grew up in the Dominican Republic and signed with the Mariners in December of 2005 for a measly $35k . He spent the 2006 and 2007 seasons in the Dominican Summer League before coming stateside in 2008. Seattle sent Pineda to Low-A as a 19-year-old that year, and he struck out 128 (8.3 K/9 and 23.2 K%) and walked just 35 (2.3 BB/9 and 6.4 BB%) in 138.1 IP across 21 starts and five relief appearances. After the season, Baseball America dubbed him the team’s tenth best prospect.

Sent to High-A to open 2009, Pineda made just six starts before a sore elbow popped up and the team shut him down for close to three months. He ended up throwing just 47.1 IP that season, striking out 52 (9.9 K/9 and 29.2 K%) while walking just six (1.1 BB/9 and 3.4 BB%). Baseball America still considered him the Mariners’ sixth best prospect that offseason. The 2010 season was Pineda’s coming out party, as he utterly dominated the competition in 139.1 IP split almost evenly between Double and Triple-A. With his now healthy elbow, he whiffed 154 (9.9 K/9 and 26.7 K%) while walking just 34 (2.2 BB/9 and 5.9 BB%), then was ranked as Seattle’s second best prospect and the 16th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. The only pitchers ahead of Pineda on the top 100 list were Julio Teheran, Jeremy Hellickson, Aroldis Chapman, Jameson Taillon, Shelby Miller, and Matt Moore.

Pineda made the Mariners’ Opening Day rotation last year thanks to his strong showing in Spring Training (16 K and 5 BB in 15 IP), and he made the team look really smart. After pitching to a 3.03 ERA with 9.0 K/9 (25.0 K%) and 2.9 BB/9 (8.0 BB%) in 113 IP during the first half, Pineda was named to the AL All-Star Team and threw a perfect third inning with two strikeouts in the actual game. His ERA came back to Earth in the second half (5.12), though his strikeout (9.3 K/9 and 24.6 K%) and walk (2.9 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) numbers didn’t suffer at all in the 58 IP sample. Pineda’s BABIP did correct a bit in the second half (.247 pre-ASG and .286 post-ASG), and the Mariners limited his workload by having him skip a start in early-August and two more in September.

He makes scary faces when pitching. This is a plus. (AP Photo/Lori Shepler)

The numbers sure look great, and the scouting report backs them up. Before the season, Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he throws “a crisp fastball that sits at 93-97 mph and gets as high as 101 with explosive life and occasional heavy sink” and a “quality slider.” They also said he “did a better job of selling his upper-80s changeup with the same arm speed as his fastball, keeping it down and getting hitters to chase it.” The PitchFX data from last season backs up that scouting report, and it’s worth noting that he threw that changeup just 2% of the time to righties and 11% of the time to lefties. That’s the pitch he needs to focus on to reach his substantial ceiling.

Speaking of enormous, that’s the best way to describe Pineda. The kid is listed at 6-foot-7 and 260 lbs. on Seattle’s official site, which is probably how big CC Sabathia was at that age. You can’t help but look at a frame like that and think 230 IP a year, every year. I have to imagine he’s an uncomfortable at-bat as well, this gigantic long-levered guy on the mound unleashing mid-90’s heat. There’s bound to be an intimidation factor in play here. Given his results — held hitters to a .211/.279/.342 batting line last year, righties to .184/.261/.326 — I’m guessing opposing batters were a little antsy in the box.

A few weeks ago Keith Law ranked Pineda as the 20th best player in baseball under the age of 25, the fifth pitcher on the list behind Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, and Brett Anderson. “He has the size and stuff to continue to pitch as he did in 2011,” said KLaw in the write-up, “but improving his changeup, really a show-me offering with virtually no action on it right now, would help him get to ace level.” You’ll hear quite a bit about the changeup in the coming weeks and months, I imagine. It’s the great equalizer, and in fact Brian Cashman told Jim Bowden that he’ll consider the trade a failure if he doesn’t improve the pitch and develop into a top-flight starter.

The Yankees gambled on upside by acquiring Pineda, just like the Mariners gambled on upside by acquiring Montero. Pineda’s power stuff is well suited for the rugged AL East, as is his knack for strikeouts and uncanny ability to limit walks at such a young age despite the huge fastball. We’ve been saying the Yankees should only trade Montero for a young, high-end starter with several years of team control remaining for quite some time now, and that’s exactly what they got in Pineda. He’s not a finished product, but he sure is starting from a high baseline with that electric fastball-slider combo and monstrous build.

The Jorge Vazquez Option

(N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg)

With the rotation questions answered (pending physicals), the attention has shifted to the Yankees’ now vacant DH position. It didn’t take the team long to get in touch with Johnny Damon, Carlos Pena, and Hideki Matsui, but with limited room in the budget they might look for an even cheaper solution. Buster Olney, Bryan Hoch, and Andy Martino each reported over the weekend that the Yankees consider Triple-A masher Jorge Vazquez a potential DH option heading into the season.

As Marc Carig recently explained, the Yankees found Vazquez when Michael Fishman, their in-house stats guru, got a whiff of his impressive stats in the Mexican League. From 2005-2008, the man they call Chato — Spanish for “short and chunky,” according to Carig — hit .352/.405/.698 with an average of 25 homers per year in a league where the season is less than 110 games long. Lee Sigman is the team’s top scout in Mexico, and he swooped in to sign Vazquez after he popped up on the team’s radar.

Unsurprisingly, Vazquez has done nothing but mash during his two and a half years in the organization. He owns a .284/.327/.555 batting line with 63 homers in 261 games between Double and Triple-A, and he goes back to Mexico for winter ball every year and does more of the same. This winter he put up a .330/.397/.618 line with 18 homers in 56 games. In 174 games between the regular season and winter ball, he hit 50 balls out of the park.

“He can hit homers everywhere,” said Ramiro Pena to Carig after playing with Vazquez for a number of years in Mexico. “Everybody down there in Mexico knows Chato … Tremendous power. He makes it look so easy.”

Yankees fans caught a glimpse of Vazquez last Spring Training, when he hit .412/.444/.765 with three homers in 35 plate appearances, including this mammoth blast over the batter’s eye in dead center. He few months prior to that he was named MVP of the Caribbean Series.

“He’s a major-league bat,” said Brian Cashman to Carig. “But he’s blocked more than anything else.”

Being blocked is just a small problem because Vazquez is a true DH without any defensive value, and now that job is wide open. He can stand at first base and receive throws from other infielders as well as fake third base in the way Eric Hinske can, but that’s about the extent of his defensive skills. Playing him in the field is a non-option for a contending team. But like I said, that’s just a small problem. There’s a much bigger one.

As great as Chato’s minor league and winter ball performance has been, and he has really been superb, his plate discipline numbers are a major cause for concern. In his 1,096 plate appearances since signing with the Yankees, Vazquez has struck out 314 times and unintentionally walked just 47 times. That’s a 28.6% strikeout rate and a 4.3% walk rate. The only big leaguer with a 25%+ strikeout rate and a sub-5% walk rate in single season over the last three years was Miguel Olivo (27.6 K% and 3.6 BB%) in 2011, who has the advantage of being a pretty good defensive catcher. JoVa put up those rates in the minors as a defensively challenged first baseman approaching his 30th birthday (he’ll be 30 in March).

The strikeout and walk rates indicate some kind of problem, but we don’t know exactly what it is from here. It could be breaking balls, inside fastballs, first pitch changeups, who knows. Whatever the problem is, it’s resulted in extreme strikeout issues and plate indiscipline. For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects a .235/.275/.449 batting line with 23 homers, 20 walks, and 138 strikeouts given 400+ at-bats next season while CAIRO v0.2 pegs him for a .231/.281/.439 line with 28 homers, 33 walks, and 177 strikeouts in 500+ at-bats. Remember, projections are not predictions, just a reasonable estimate of talent level.

In a recent ESPN Insider-only piece, Kevin Goldstein looked at the concept of Quad-A players like Vazquez, the guys that are too good for Triple-A but not good enough for MLB. He notes that one of the main reasons why these guys are limited is because of an inability to make adjustments, especially when advanced scouts start picking the guy’s game apart. Some players shed the label like Nelson Cruz did, but most aren’t so lucky. Vazquez has very real power, but given that his strikeout rate has gotten worse every year since signing with the Yankees, we have reason to believe he can’t make those necessary adjustments and contribute to the big league team.

Barring something unexpected, we’ll see Chato in Spring Training one way or another. He might be a replacement in the second half of games like last year, or he might be competing for the team’s DH job. Hey, maybe there’s value in having a guy who will sabotage a first pitch fastball hidden in a lineup of patient hitters, but I have a hard time buying that argument. Vazquez has significant flaws both at the plate and in the field, and on top of that he’s not a great fit as a right-handed hitter, assuming they’re looking for someone to split time with Andruw Jones. There’s always a chance something will click and JoVa will figure it out, but I’m not counting on it and neither should the Yankees.