Position Roundtables: #1 Starter
Dave: #1 Starter: Joel Pineiro
This spot, the opening day starter, the ace of the staff, is the
team’s biggest weakness. Compared to other teams with playoff
aspirations, our best starting pitcher often pales in comparison to
their best starting pitcher. New York has Randy Johnson. Boston has
Curt Schilling. Minnesota has Johan Santana. Oakland has Rich Harden
or Barry Zito. Anaheim has Kelvim Escobar or Bartolo Colon. In
almost any potential playoff matchup, we’re just outgunned in game
We like Joel Pineiro. He was a good pitcher in 2002 and 2003. He’s
still young and has pretty good stuff, though I’d argue that he lacks
a true outpitch. But if he’s the best starting pitcher on your staff,
well, the two through five guys better be pretty good too.
From 2002-2004, Pineiro’s road numbers per 9 innings: 9.42 hits, 2.64
walks, 1.14 home runs, 6.78 strikeouts, 4.45 earned runs.
That’s just not a number one starter on a team that wants to contend.
Pineiro has benefited greatly from pitching half his games in Safeco
Field, and his raw numbers don’t reveal that, through his first three
major league seasons, he’s been a middle of the rotation starter. You
want him on your staff, but you don’t want him starting game one of a
And that’s the healthy Joel Pineiro. Which we don’t really have right
now. He missed the second half of 2004 with an undiagnosed elbow
injury. He’s been shut down in spring training due to soreness in his
throwing shoulder. When a kid who threw 550 innings from ages 23-25
suddenly comes down with a sore elbow and shoulder, surgery is
basically inevitable. The question isn’t really if Pineiro is going
to need to have to have his arm worked on; its when.
Before this team is going to contend for the playoffs, they are simply
going to have to find a better #1 starting pitcher. Joel Pineiro just
isn’t it, and we’d better start preparing for the possibility of not
having Pineiro at all.
Jeff: The more I think about this rotation, the less I like it, and Pineiro
is the primary reason why.
Not because I’m not a booster of Joel himself, but because he has to
be as good or better as he was in 2002 an 2003 in order for the team
to contend barring unforeseen circumstances. With health problems
looming, even getting a comparable performance from that vintage would
be good news, and the “great leap forward” scenario doesn’t seem
likely at all.
Without getting ahead of the roundtable schedule, Dave is right that
this lack of a true No. 1 pitcher does put pressure on the rest of the
rotation. Ironically, in a playoff series, it seems like a team
without an ace might benefit by not having the top guy start game one
— though just getting the Mariners into playoff series in 2004 will
be, ahem, a challenge.
What’s the over-under on someone mentioning the possibility of Felix
in the rotation taking the league by storm, becoming the truly
dominant force the rotation has lacked since Randy Johnson? I’ll take
three hours. This paragraph and the one that follows don’t count.
The vexing thing is that there are two potential impact starters in
the system. One is a teenager; one is being groomed for the bullpen
and had Tommy John surgery last year.
Now isn’t time to revisit the “try Rafael Soriano in the rotation”
discussion, but Pineiro would look a lot better as the No. 3 starter
behind King Felix and Regal Raffy in 2006 or so than he does as the
current heir to Jamie Moyer’s throne.
Maybe that’s as likely as me finding the map to the Big Rock Candy
Mountain, but a guy can dream.
Derek: On Soriano; if the move to put him in the bullpen was part of a plan
to try and preserve his arm, which had bugged him on and off during his
ascent up the minors, then I understand. But once he’s gone under the
knife and he’s back, I’d like to see him get regular, closely-monitored
starts to build his strength back up with an eye to getting him in the
The 2002-2003 Pineiro’s a good pitcher. The problem I see is that let’s
say they only get 150 innings out of Pineiro. Where does the patch come
from? Villone? When we talk about Pineiro’s value over replacement
player, that’s not far off. With all the question marks in the rotation
and the little available talent that could step up, the team isn’t far
off having the kind of problems they faced last year, where they look to
their young pitchers for volunteers and everyone but (say) Thornton
takes one step back.
Each of the question guys — Joel, Jamie, Gil — will swing the season a
couple games, but together they’ll make or break this year entirely. If
Joel’s healthy and effective, even if that’s just the 2002 version and
he doesn’t make improvements, there’s a little more room for Jamie and
Gil to struggle. And if Jamie returns to form, then Gil could really
suck it up and the team could still get to 80 wins.
But if Joel breaks down early, or if he’s never quite right, the dominos
start to fall.
I looked up his 2005 PECOTA card and it’s a strange bunch, though it’s worth noting that
his similarity index means that his career path so far is fairly common.
Wade Miller was the closest comparison, which is interesting… Miller
was 27 last year. After that it’s Lynn McGlothen, Billy Loes, Bill
Monbouquette… 6 and 7 are Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio. My point
here is that looking at Pineiro’s career and those who had similar
careers — and there are many — support for me Dave’s contention, that
he’s not an ace, and he’s not going to be an ace.
Now, on that — I don’t think that there’s a particular value of having
an ace — to me, the job of every starting pitcher, 1-5, is to start
games, and the only real distinction is that in the playoffs, you can
jettison the #5 booster rocket and maybe the #4 as well, depending on
scheduling. If I was offered a chance to have one super ace at #1 and
two okay guys or three good pitchers, all of who would in total
contribute the same number of innings and perform the same over those
innings in total, I wouldn’t care which one you took.
In the playoffs, putting those two rotations against each other comes
out even — the advantage of the ace over the good guy is counteracted
by the advantage of the two other good guys.
So three, four 2002 Joels is okay with me. The larger issue is, as Dave
pointed out, how you get the team from good to great, and particularly
the rotation. King Felix is one part. I’d like to think Soriano is
another, but… we’ll see. Joel can be a contributor to that, but he has
to be healthy, and he’s not the franchise. If the team had the chance,
right now, to trade Pineiro for… I don’t know, Matt Cain or Jeff Francis
(I’m reading my copy of Baseball America, obviously),
I’d hope that I could yell “yes” before my head exploded with excitement.
I like watching Joel pitch a lot, and I’ve always felt like he wasn’t
that far from being a top-tier pitcher. But he is. I haven’t seen the
out pitch, as Dave says. And until there’s something he can throw out
there on a full-count to a good hitter and get the out, to say “you know
this is coming and you’re still not going to be able to hit it” he’s
either going to have to develop Maddux-like control and pitchability, or
his upside will remain the good-but-not-great. That’s a contributor, and
maybe in looking to him to pick up the slack for Moyer/Garcia we’re
looking for too much.
Dave: The Soriano to the bullpen thing is basically the extension of the
common baseball wisdom that guys without an offspeed pitch are best
suited to relief work. Because Soriano’s fastball-slider combination
both come in at 90+, people look at him and see Mariano Rivera,
Francisco Rodriguez, or Billy Wagner. The list of starters who
achieved all-star status with two hard pitches basically starts and
ends with Randy Johnson.
That’s not to say Soriano couldn’t start. But the feeling in the
organization has been that he’ll either be an okay starter or a great
reliever, and they’d rather have the great reliever.
But, anyways, back to Pineiro and the whole number one starter thing.
While I agree with the concept that, effectively, three pitchers
posting a 30 VORP or one guy posting a 60 VORP and two guys poting a
15 VORP are effectively equal in value, I’d take the second group
every time. Because its a heck of a lot easier to replace one of the
15 VORP guys with a 30 VORP guy than it is to turn one of your 30 VORP
guys into a 60 VORP guy.
For example, if the Blue Jays called and said they’d give up Roy
Halladay for Pineiro, Meche, and Julio Mateo, you’d say no? Not me.
I’d take that deal every day and twice on Sundays, even if I wasn’t
concerned about Pineiro’s health. The M’s are awash in end of the
bullpen arms and back-end starters. What they lack is a difference
maker in the rotation. Unfortunately, teams just don’t trade those
guys very often, so if the M’s are going to have one any time soon,
its probably going to be Felix.
Derek: I agree that from a team-construction point of view, yes, you want the ace-okay-okay over good-good-good.
Jason: Have I mentioned how much I dislike the rotation? Maybe if I were some sort
of “insider,” I’d have a better outlook on all this. But this roundtable is
about Pineiro, so unlike many of our comment threads, I’ll try to stay on
So far we’ve been generally down on Pineiro, and probably rightfully so —
he’s thrown quite a few innings the past three years, he doesn’t generate
groundballs, he’s not exactly young, and of course there’s the injury
concern. He also doesn’t, if you’re into this sort of thing, hold runners or
slow the running game (opposing basestealers are 41-for-54 against him in
Are there any reasons for optimism? Digging a bit, I found a few. Despite
the injury, he posted the best strikeout rate of his career last season (7.1
whiffs per nine innings). Then there’s outfield defense. In 2003, he allowed
a non-HR extra-base hit (a double or triple) every 25 batters faced. In
2004, that number dropped to one every 19 batters faced. Thanks, Randy Winn
and Raul Ibanez!
Assuming he’s healthy, Joel Pineiro should easily be the best starter on the
staff next season (pay no attention to the Felix behind the curtain!). But
that’s more a rag on the rotation than props for Pineiro.