Pineda could make pinstripe debut by June
After missing last year due to surgery, righty champing at bit to return
TAMPA, Fla. -- Thirteen months and a day have passed since the Yankees interrupted a quiet winter evening by acquiring Michael Pineda in a blockbuster trade, and they're still waiting to see the right-hander showcase his talents in a game that counts.
It's easy to overlook Pineda in the clubhouse, and there are those who already view his mere presence as a risky gamble that didn't pay off, the collateral damage from a swap with the Mariners that deleted promising slugger Jesus Montero from New York's system.
The Yankees aren't in that group. With each successful mound session, they become more encouraged that the 24-year-old Pineda could represent a nice midseason addition, tossing out a best-case scenario of his pinstriped debut finally taking place in May or June.
"I really wanted to pitch. Last year was a really bad year for me," Pineda said. "I learned from the whole situation from last year and everything is in the past. I'm very excited for this year, my shoulder is doing well, and I'm ready to pitch this year."
Yankees executives admitted to fighting sleepless nights even in the immediate aftermath of the decision last Jan. 13 to ship Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi to Seattle for Pineda and pitcher Jose Campos, and there were more serious questions when Pineda reported to camp overweight and lacking velocity.
After an unimpressive spring campaign, Pineda underwent surgery for a torn labrum in April and has essentially been a Tampa mainstay since then, his afternoons burned on the back fields of the Yanks' Minor League complex.
Pineda has advanced to throwing off a full mound, and as a result of that work, he said that he reported to camp at 260 pounds -- 20 pounds lighter than last spring. General manager Brian Cashman described the team as being "cautiously optimistic" about Pineda's progress.
"I think he's gotten after it pretty good since he had his injury," manager Joe Girardi added. "I think he's done a really good job of rehabbing and staying consistent in his work and working to get back to what he loves to do. That's a good thing. It just shows you that he's hungry."
Pineda's time in Tampa has not been without incident. The Yankees were not pleased when he was arrested for driving under the influence in August; Girardi chalked up the transgression to a "lapse in judgment."
The Yankees would prefer to talk about the chances of Pineda helping the big league roster in 2013, which is no sure thing.
The track record for pitchers returning from labrum tears is a mixed bag -- for every Curt Schilling, Chris Carpenter or Ted Lilly, there are names like Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb or Robb Nen, talents that didn't make it all the way back.
Pineda will get a true test when he begins facing hitters under controlled conditions next month, but he believes that he will return as the same power pitcher who earned an All-Star selection in 2011.
"I saw the video when I threw my bullpen [session]," Pineda said. "The mechanics, range of motion, everything is the same."
Cashman cautioned that it is not unusual for pitchers to have setbacks as they progress through their throwing programs, so an adjustment to move the target date back is possible. Still, Cashman said that he has always considered June as a realistic goal.
"We have to get in a position where he's 100 percent healthy, and then it will be performance driven," Cashman said. "He's working hard, he's been in great shape for a long time now, so he's doing everything necessary. There's still time and things he has to complete for us to start hoping we can actually see the benefits of that trade."
With six pitchers already competing for five rotation slots, the Yankees must proceed as though they aren't counting on Pineda for a contribution in 2013, but Girardi acknowledges that he wonders about the potential jolt Pineda could provide down the line.
"It could mean a lot, especially as you get to where sometimes some pitchers get nicked up a little bit," Girardi said. "It could be a really nice boost for us."
Cashman strikes a more pessimistic tone, noting that it's possible Pineda could clear all of the prescribed physical hurdles and still find himself with a lack of velocity, or perhaps not showing the necessary crispness on his pitches.
The track record of labrum tears suggests that it could be difficult for Pineda to fulfill the promise that teased the Yankees so much 13 months ago, when they essentially chose to roll the dice on a promising pitcher rather than a promising hitter.
Yet there are also the success stories, and those have the Yankees hopeful for brighter days ahead.
"We just have to wait, and I have to be honest that it's a question mark," Cashman said. "We just don't know. I'm hoping -- because he's an important piece -- that if he's back and healthy and performing up to his ceiling, that's a huge thing for us.
"Right now, I can't represent any of those things. I just appreciate him working his tail off and doing everything necessary to give it a chance."