Commentary

Is it time yet for panic over Pineda?

Righty's injury, ineffectiveness help cast pall over Yanks' long night in Tampa

Updated: March 31, 2012, 1:48 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the time it takes to play two-thirds of a preseason baseball game, the Yankees went from Camp Calm to Camp Calamity.

Even in a game that lasted as long as Friday night's 13-7 Yankees victory over the Phillies -- a midseason-like 3:40 -- that takes some doing.

First it was Michael Pineda -- who arrived amid much fanfare in January after it was determined that it was worth trading away Jesus Montero, the most highly touted prospect in their system, in exchange for his right arm -- getting bombed and then admitting to what would later be revealed as shoulder tendinitis that will sit him on the 15-day DL to start the season.

Three innings later, it was Cesar Cabral, a Rule 5 pick who was on the verge of making the team as the second lefty out of the bullpen, coming out of the game with his elbow on fire and his season very much in doubt.

[+] EnlargeMichael Pineda
AP Photo/Kathy WillensIf Michael Pineda continues to flounder, expect anguished cries of "Kei Pineda!" from Yankees fans.

No wonder guys like Joe Girardi are always saying "You can never have too much pitching." And no wonder GM Brian Cashman, who probably has more to lose than anyone involved in the Pineda-for-Montero swap, was calling this "a very bad day for us."

There's no question which of the two injuries is potentially the more damaging to the Yankees' chances this season. And suddenly that "tough decision" Girardi had regarding which five starting pitchers to take north with him next week got a whole lot easier, because right now five is all he's got.

Maybe Pineda wasn't going to make the cut anyway. Even before the revelation that his shoulder was troubling him during his 2 2/3-inning, six-run roasting by the Phillies on Friday night, the Yankees were concerned about the missing mph on his fastball, which averaged between 94 and 95 last year with Seattle but was loitering at about 91 here in Tampa.

It was an even-money bet that Cashman and Girardi were going to opt to go with Freddy Garcia, who has had an atypically excellent spring, and Ivan Nova, who did win 16 games for them last season, while leaving Pineda behind in Triple-A for a little more seasoning.

It would have been easy enough to do. He's young, you know. Unsophisticated. New York is a tough place to step into after just one year in the big leagues, especially coming from Seattle. Besides, we want him to pitch every five days and he can't do that here as a No. 5. Yada, yada, yada.

Everyone would have gone along with it.

But now, the injury and the suspicion that maybe the Yankees gave away the next Yogi Berra for a 6-foot-7, 290-pound pile of damaged goods looms over Cashman and the Yankees.

No doubt, they watched every pitch Pineda threw last year as a Mariner, went over his medical records with a microscope, ran the numbers backward, forward and sideways before finally deciding to pull the trigger.

But still, there will be doubts and criticism and anguished cries of "Kei Pineda!"

Already, it seemed as if the Yankees were looking for a spot to point the finger at, as well, when Girardi said, "That's the danger of people always talking about it, that you get concerned, and that could've been why his mechanics were a little bit out of whack."

He was referring, of course, to the many published accounts of Pineda's curiously low V-lo and obliquely blaming the media for writing about it, as if this 23-year-old from the Dominican Republic had been scanning the daily papers and websites and had allowed the doubts of journalists to become his own.

That wasn't the case; Cashman admitted that as Pineda continued to struggle to find that missing yard on his fastball, he and Girardi, too, began to ask Pineda regularly whether he was OK physically.

"He's always said he felt fine," Cashman said. "The answer has always been good. In terms of his mechanics, everything else like that, the only thing that has obviously been a red flag has been the velocity."

Even without knowing what the MRI scheduled for Saturday morning will show, it is more likely that Pineda pushed himself into this injury.

Although he said, rather poignantly, "I'm still the same Michael Pineda I was last year," his downcast eyes and disconsolate demeanor told you otherwise.

He has not been the same pitcher the Yankees saw in the flesh last June, or on tape all winter, ever since he arrived at camp a week earlier than the reporting date for pitchers and catchers.

At the time, the story seemed to be his weight -- by his own admission, he showed up 10 pounds over his playing weight from last season, and it looked like more than that -- but over time it evolved into something more ominous.

All along, Pineda assured everyone he was fine, that he was working on his off-speed stuff, especially his changeup, which the Yankees felt needed improvement for him to be successful in the brutal AL East. He said he was conserving his fastball for when the games got serious, that there was more in that big right arm than he was showing.

And then Friday night, the first time he tried to uncork it -- or "let it eat," as the pitchers like to say -- the shoulder bit back instead.

The kid who trudged off the mound with his chin on his chest was not the kid the Yankees thought they were getting in the trade completed on Friday the 13th, just another ominous note in a disturbing day.

"That can be the danger of when you have competitions," Girardi said. "That maybe someone doesn't say something and there's something bothering them a little bit. It doesn't shock me. There's a competitive nature in every one of them or they wouldn't be here. That's what makes them successful. That's how athletes push through things, and sometimes you don't know the difference between stiffness and soreness and maybe being hurt."

Now the team that had too much pitching has just about enough. Now a successful comeback by Andy Pettitte, which seemed like an embarrassment of riches two weeks ago, might turn out to be a necessity.

And a training camp that was so calm it was boring has become a place of intrigue.

That's what can happen in the time it takes to play six innings in March.

What started out as an essentially meaningless ballgame turned into a very bad day for the New York Yankees.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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