It's easy to get ensnared in the information overload, analyzing players until they become a line of statistics, pitch F/X data or economic asset or liability. There's nothing wrong with that. For many of us, the numbers illuminate the game on a deeper level and make us smarter and more invested fans.
But at its heart, baseball remains an emotional attachment. We get addicted to the big hits, the dramatic rallies, the steady drone of a meaningless July game on television in the background as you read a book or eat dinner. Or we grow devoted to a 22-year-old rookie right-hander who throws 98-mph fastballs and ferocious sliders and pitches with the confident savvy of a veteran All-Star.
Last season was another miserable one for the Seattle Mariners. For this fan — or, at least, trying to remain one while living 3,000 miles away and rooting for a team that posted the lowest batting by an American League team in the DH era — Michael Pineda was the bright spot of the 2011 season. Ichiro Suzuki looked like an aging, skinny singles hitter rather than a magician; Dustin Ackley showed promise but the rest of the offense was execrable; even Felix Hernandez seemed bored and indifferent at times.
But we at least had Pineda to look forward to once every five or six days. A beast of a kid at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds or so, he was all arms and legs in his delivery, an explosive pitching machine who pounded the strike zone and crushed right-handed batters in particular with that nasty slider. He was a great story, a kid who entered spring training likely headed for more seasoning in Triple-A but he earned a spot in the rotation and dominated out of the gate, winning four of his first five starts and posting a 2.65 ERA through June. While he tired a bit in the second half, he still finished the season ranked second in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings, fifth in hits per nine innings and eighth in WHIP.
He was a prize; he was our prize. Power pitchers who throw strikes, excel as rookies and show obvious ace potential don't exactly fall out of trees.
And now he's gone.
So my first reaction to the trade that sent him and Jose Campos to the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi was an emotional "No!!!!!" I thought of Pineda's fastball and composure and then thought of overhyped Yankees prospects like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. I thought of the comparisons to Miguel Cabrera and knew that at age 21 Montero was repeating Triple-A while Cabrera had hit .294 with 33 home runs in the majors. I knew many were skeptical about Montero's ability to remain a catcher and that his eventual position is probably DH.
I'm coming around on the deal. The Mariners obviously needed a hitter; they have three Grade A pitching prospects in the minors in Danny Hultzen, James Paxon and Taijuan Walker, with Hultzen and Paxton close to big-league ready. They still have room in the budget to sign a free-agent pitcher for 2012, if so desired, maybe a guy like Edwin Jackson to slot in alongside Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma and perhaps Noesi.
But I'll be honest: It will take me a while to warm up to Montero. I'll be skeptical until I see him launching home runs.
But I'll be rooting for him. That's what we do as fans: We cheer, we hope, we develop new attachments.
And when Yankees fan start watching Michael Pineda pitch, they'll understand this. Enjoy him, New Yorkers. You got a good one.