Tigers Ink Michael Pineda to Round Out Rotation

© Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After escaping last place in the American League Central for just the second time in five years in 2021, the Detroit Tigers have signaled that they’re ready to contend, committing over $230 million this offseason to free agents Javier Báez, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Andrew Chafin. On Friday, they added another free agent of note, signing Michael Pineda to a one-year deal.

The 33-year-old Pineda, who spent the past four seasons with the Twins, is guaranteed $5.5 million, with an additional $375,000 apiece for surpassing the 50-, 75-, 100-, and 125-inning thresholds, and another $500,000 for surpassing the 150- and 175-inning thresholds. That’s a maximum of $2.5 million in incentives and $8 million in total salary if he throws at least 175 innings.

Pineda hasn’t reached that total in a single season since 2016, when he was a member of the Yankees. Since then, he’s thrown just 378.1 innings at the major league level, having missed half of 2017 and all of ’18 due to Tommy John surgery, drawing a 60-game PED suspension late in ’19 that carried over into the following year, and then missing about eight weeks last season due to an abscess on his inner thigh, an inflamed elbow, and a strained oblique. It appears that he’ll miss some time to start this season due to work visa issues, which could keep him out of camp for another week or two.

When he was healthy, the 6-foot-7, 280-pound righty — “Big Mike,” of course — pitched reasonably well last year, at least from a superficial standpoint, as he posted a 3.62 ERA (83 ERA-) and 4.12 FIP (98 FIP-) in 109.1 innings. Beyond the ERA, however, there were reasons to be concerned. The average velocity of his low-spin four-seam fastball was down nearly two full ticks compared to 2019 (from 92.5 mph to 90.6) — I’m skipping his five-start ’20 here — and four compared to ’16, when he averaged 94.6 mph. From 2019 to ’21, his strikeout rate fell more than four percentage points (from 23.3% to a career-low 19.2%) and his swinging strikeout rate two points (from 12.5% to a career-low 10.5%).

In other words, batters made more contact with Pineda’s offerings than ever before, and when they did, they did unholy things with it. Both his 91.2 mph average exit velo and 46.7% hard-hit rate placed within the bottom 5% among qualifiers, and his 4.92 xERA was good for only the 22nd percentile. All of those were Statcast-era worsts, as was his 8.9% barrel rate. Pineda mitigated the hard contact and falling strikeout rate by walking just 4.6% of hitters, putting him in the 95th percentile. His slider was effective, producing a 19.6% swinging strike rate and, when hitters made contact, just a .199 average and .346 slugging percentage. Still, he can only rely so much on his slider when both his fastball and changeup are so hittable – and both were very hittable in 2021, with slugging percentages against of .493 and .516, respectively.

In joining the Tigers, Pineda will move to a park that’s a bit tougher on lefty hitters than the one he’s leaving behind. Last year, lefties hit Pineda at a .290/.316/.500 (.346 wOBA) clip, while righties hit .246/.290/.418 (.302 wOBA) against him. His three-year splits are closer (.309 wOBA vs. lefties, .302 vs. Righties), but either way, Comerica Park suppresses homers and doubles by lefties by five percent relative to Target Field.

Along with Rodriguez, whom Detroit signed to a five-year, $77 million deal before the lockout, the Tigers will roll with a rotation that also includes a trio of former top prospects, namely 24-year-old righties Casey Mize (the first pick in the 2018 draft, 32nd on our Top 100 entering last season) and Matt Manning (the ninth pick in 2016, 18th on last year’s prospect list), and 25-year-old lefty Tarik Skubal (22nd on last year’s prospect list). All three took their lumps at the major league level last year but project to improve, with the acquisition of catcher Tucker Barnhart, a much better framer than anyone the Tigers had on hand last season (the team’s -13 runs in that department was the majors’ fourth-worst), expected to help. Tigers starters finished 23rd in the majors in WAR last year, but via our Depth Charts, they are forecast to rank 18th with Pineda in the fold.

They’ve made other moves that should help the pitchers, starting with the signing of the slick-fielding Báez to a six-year, $140 million deal to take over shortstop. On a team whose shortstops (Niko Goodrum and company) combined for -15 DRS, which was tied for the majors’ third-worst mark, that’s a major upgrade. Moving from Miguel Cabrera to 2020 number one overall pick Spencer Torkelson at first base could help as well, though it’s the latter’s bat that’s the real difference-maker, not his glove.

Assuming Pineda gets a late jump on the season due to his visa problems, lefty Tyler Alexander, who made 15 starts and 26 relief appearances for the team, will begin the year in the rotation. Even so, general manager Al Avila said that he expects Pineda will be ready “maybe not Opening Day, but close thereafter.”

Even in a comparatively weak division, the Tigers need a lot to go right to become true contenders. They’ll need quality innings from starters besides their highly touted youngsters, and Pineda, who’s pitched for many a contender and seen a whole lot of ups and downs, may or may not help with that. He’s a long way from being a highly-touted young power pitcher himself and will need to adapt — regain some velocity, sharpen his secondary arsenal, something — if he’s to provide much more assistance than simply logging innings.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

Hold down the fort until Beau Brieske is ready. Or maybe Wentz. But, Brieske has been the talk of spring training