Why It Would Be Okay To Trade Michael Pineda
The last few weeks of Justin Upton related conversations have given rise to perspectives on the relative trade value of most of the M’s young talents, including the three young guys who seem close enough the majors that you should expect to see them at Safeco this summer – Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Michael Pineda. Besides Felix, these are the three guys in the organization that get people excited about what the future might hold, and for many of you, the idea of trading any of them away is painful. As Shannon Drayer wrote on her blog, initial reaction is often “hell no” when the topic of moving two of those players for Upton is broached.
However, Shannon came around to the idea of making a move with some limitations – for her, the guy she wants to keep is Michael Pineda. Personally, I’m of the exact opposite opinion – he’s the guy I’d be most willing to deal, and given the Mariners situation, I think it might actually make sense for the M’s to use Pineda as a bargaining chip this winter.
I realize that this might sound crazy. Pineda is the organization’s best pitching prospect by a country mile, as the drop-off after him is pretty substantial. He showed front-of-the-rotation stuff and potential in Double-A and Triple-A last year, and is widely expected to have a real chance to break camp with the team to start the 2011 season. After Felix, the M’s rotation options are a bunch of slop-throwing, pitch-to-contact guys, none of whom have anything resembling Pineda’s upside. If the M’s did trade him, they’d need to acquire two starting pitchers to fill out their rotation this winter, and it’s never easy to get two useful big league starters in the same winter.
However, while Pineda is full of upside, he’s also brimming with risk. Pitching prospects are notoriously fickle, as they are the most likely players on the field to get hurt and don’t follow traditional development curves. Just as an example, here are the pitching prospects that Baseball America ranked in their top 25 prospects before the 2007 season began.
Despite being a really strong year for pitching prospects, that is a decidedly mixed bag. Dice-K is generally considered a bust, and is nothing more than a #4 or #5 starter at this point. Hughes has turned into a good starter, but it took him four years and a trip to the bullpen in between. Bailey has mostly struggled, finally showing some progress in the second half of last season. Andrew Miller is a bust, as he’s battled arm injuries and is now a reclamation project with his third organization. Lincecum is the big success story, though Gallardo and Kershaw have also developed into high quality starters as well. Pelfrey has established himself as a decent mid-rotation guy, as has Garza, though it took him a change in organizations to live up to the hype. Adam Miller rounds out the bust group, as finger problems have derailed his career.
This is basically how it goes with pitching prospects – even premium ones. There’s a chance that Pineda turns into a really good starting pitcher, but there’s an equally large chance that he gets hurt or simply can’t translate his minor league success to the big leagues. In fact, given Pineda’s history of arm problems and limited workloads, chances are almost certainly better that he busts than that he booms. He’s a high risk prospect even by normal pitching prospect standards.
Volatility is the nature of the beast when it comes to prospects, but the Mariners have some circumstances that suggest it might not make sense for them to be the ones to take the risk on Pineda’s development. The big factor here is Safeco Field. As we’ve talked about ad nauseum, the stadium’s asymmetrical alignment makes it a pitcher’s paradise for southpaws, but it isn’t nearly as friendly for right-handed pitchers. The team has a built-in competitive advantage with left-handed pitchers, where they can take a guy who would be marginal in another park and make him a viable starter because of how the field plays. This gives them a chance to get value out of players who won’t command a huge return in the market, as their skills don’t work in other places as well as they do in Seattle.
This isn’t to say that the Mariners should only have left-handed starting pitchers, but filling the rotation with right-handers does come with an opportunity cost. With Felix and Fister already around, adding Pineda to the rotation leaves a maximum of two spots for lefties, which prevents the team from using the dimensions of its home park to full advantage. Or, to put it another way, replacing Pineda’s production may actually not be all that hard for the Mariners, given their unique ability to extract maximum value from pedestrian left-handed pitchers. If you could get a 4.25 ERA from a guy like Jeff Francis simply because of how the park plays, you would not lose all that much from what Pineda is likely to give you, even if his true talent level is significantly lower.
The other factor is that a team in the Mariners position can’t afford to see one of their primary assets lose a large chunk of his value overnight, as would happen if Pineda’s arm started hurting at some point this year. For a team that needs to be adding value to their major league roster, having two of their five most valuable pieces be pitchers under the age of 25 exposes them to significant downside. Swapping Pineda for a position player, or using him as a piece in a trade that brings the team an everyday player, would reduce the likelihood of the team facing a catastrophe.
I’m not suggesting that the Mariners should give Pineda away, of course. As one of the best pitching prospects in the game, and a guy who could step into a big league rotation right away, he should have a substantial amount of trade value. I’d simply suggest that the Mariners may want to consider cashing in that value if an opportunity to get a quality young position player presents itself. The risks of Pineda flopping are pretty large, and the organization would lose a big asset if he doesn’t develop as hoped. For where they are in terms of roster construction, it may be wise to take a little less reward to minimize risk.
If the Mariners are going to trade any of their premium young talent this winter, Pineda should probably be the one they move.