TAMPA, Fla. -- The first good sign: There is less of Michael Pineda. The right-hander began last spring’s disaster with too much weight and not enough velocity, which eventually led him to an operating table with a defective shoulder at the ripe old age of 23.
Now, a year older and perhaps wiser, at 260 pounds (down from 280), the 6-foot-7 Yankee looks more like a power forward than an offensive lineman. The Yankees say they are pleased with his work ethic. They can even dream about a possible return by June.
“It could mean a lot,” Joe Girardi said. “Especially when you get to the time when pitchers get nicked up a little bit. It could be a really nice boost for us.”
In the Yankees' clubhouse, Pineda still appears a little uneasy with New York reporters, even though he said he has adjusted to the difference between small-town Seattle and Tabloid City. His apprehension is certainly understandable considering he is hesitant when speaking English, his second language.
“I feel more comfortable now,” Pineda, a Dominican, said quietly as he hosted reporters at his locker on Thursday.
The words won’t mean much either way. It is action on his fastball that will ultimately tell Pineda’s Bronx tale. Pineda is throwing off a mound now, but the Yankees will take his recovery slow.
He has been ruled out of appearing in any spring training games. If all goes right, he will be revving it up in the minors in May and could be in the Bronx by June.
The Yankees could need him by then. It is hard to find places where the Yankees have improved over the 2012 edition. Pineda is the rare spot in which the Yankees could get better, but it is still a bit of a long shot for this season.
Shoulder surgeries can wreck careers. Pineda’s dedication must be consistent if he is ever going to be the future ace the Yankees thought they were acquiring for Jesus Montero 14 months ago.
“I’m ready to pitch this year,” Pineda said. “I want to compete and help my team.”
Interviews with Pineda are stilted, as much the fault of the English-only speakers who surround the pitcher's locker. There was a lot of ground to cover, from last spring’s weight to Pineda's loss of velocity to a DUI arrest while rehabbing here in the summer to the expectations for 2013.
“I learned a lot [from] last year,” Pineda said. “It was a really bad year for me. I learned from all the situations I had from last year.”
The Yankees have been trying to limit the expectations for Pineda since the moment they traded for him on Jan. 13, 2012, which just happened to be a Friday. Montero excited the fan base by launching balls all over the Bronx in September 2011, and with GM Brian Cashman comparing Montero to a young Manny Ramirez, the fans couldn't be blamed for wanting Pineda to show up as half-CC Sabathia, half-Walter Johnson.
Given that he made the All-Star team in 2010, his rookie year, the Yankees were still trying to tamp down the expectations that he could ride shotgun to Sabathia as the No. 2 starter. Pineda showed up to camp overweight and without enough on a fastball that was supposed to dial up to the mid-to-upper 90s but could barely inch up above 90 during his spring outings.
So now, the Yankees don't want to rest their hopes on Pineda.
“It’s possible before the All-Star break [that he could return],” Cashman said. “It’s not unusual to have setbacks when these guys go through their throwing programs, especially when they get on the mound. That hasn’t happened yet, but it could very well happen and we’ll have to make an adjustment. I’ve always thought about June as when we can realistically start thinking about him.”
Pineda may never be what the Yankees had hoped for, but if he gives them even a little in 2013, it could be a bonus.