Twins, Pineda Run It Back

It’s been a fast offseason for mid-tier pitchers, and that trajectory continued on Thursday with Michael Pineda signing a two-year contract to return to Minnesota. The actual value of the deal will come out to $17.6 million after pro-rating down the 2020 salary due to his suspension:

The weirdness of signing a suspended player and pro-rating salary aside, this looks like a contender for the most team-friendly contract so far this offseason. Cole Hamels, who Kiley listed exactly one slot ahead of Pineda, is going to make more in 2020 than Pineda will over the next two years, and he was arguably worse than Pineda in 2019.

It’s almost beside the point to explain why this signing makes sense for the Twins, but let’s go through the motions quickly. The team’s winning recipe in 2019 was a combination of home runs at the plate and steady starters on the mound. José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi both had standout years, but the rotation was solid 1 through 5:

Twins Starters, 2019
Pitcher IP fWAR RA9-WAR
José Berríos 200.1 4.4 4.1
Jake Odorizzi 159.0 4.3 4.2
Michael Pineda 146.0 2.7 3.0
Kyle Gibson 154.2 2.5 0.9
Martín Pérez 157.0 1.8 1.1

But things change, and four of the five starters on that list were out of the Twins’ employ after they declined Pérez’s 2020 option. That’s a lot of innings to replace, and while Randy Dobnak chipped in somewhat towards the end of the year, he’s more of a two-jobs guy than a four-starting-rotation-spots guy. As such, the Twins had a clear priority this offseason: retain or add pitching.

Odorizzi accepted a qualifying offer, which alleviated the pressure somewhat. It was only a one-year stopgap, however, and even then it left plenty of rotation spots to replace. Gibson signed with the Rangers, ratcheting up the pressure, and while the Twins never looked likely to shop in the Zack Wheeler tier, the Phillies further limited the pitching market by inking him this week.

Rather than shop in the bargain bin (Rich Hill? Wade Miley?), the Twins went with what they knew and signed Pineda. He won’t be eligible to return from suspension until mid-May, but even that isn’t without its upsides; Pineda missed all of 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery as well as a torn meniscus, and he has never thrown more than 175.2 innings in a year. A little forced rest to start the season might do him well.

From Pineda’s perspective, this deal is pure risk mitigation. He’s earned more than $20 million in his career, but poor timing has sapped his earning potential; he was rehabbing from surgery the first time he reached the open market, and previous injury woes capped his arbitration earnings.

So, two prior serious injuries, one unrewarding trip through free agency in the rearview mirror, and a suspension for using a masking agent hanging over his head — getting a little certainty makes plenty of sense when certainty still pays you nearly $9 million a year over the next two years. Taking a pillow contract to show that he could still pitch after the suspension was a viable option — but so was locking up two years of an excellent salary right now.

Imagine someone offering you this deal: nearly double your career earnings, keep working with the same coworkers you have now, and do that despite currently being suspended from doing your job. The alternative? Take less money to go work for a company you’ve never worked for. If you have a good year next year, you might clean up in 2021; but if you have a bad year, everyone will wonder about your suspension, and you might never make the money back, even if the bad year is pure random chance.

Of course, the reason I’m framing the trade as a human decision is because from a pure business of baseball perspective, Pineda probably left money on the table. Suspension aside, he looks like a capable No. 3 starter, and the suspension was for a masking agent that can also be used to manage weight loss, a consideration which convinced an independent arbitrator to reduce it from 80 games to 60.

When Pineda does pitch, he still shows flashes of the fastball/slider monster he was with Seattle all those years ago. He supplements those two offerings with a changeup that he throws almost exclusively to lefties, against whom his cutter-y slider is more of a liability.

One thing that doesn’t vary with handedness is Pineda’s superlative command. He walked only 2.7% of lefties he faced in 2019, and for his career he has nearly no platoon split, either in walk rate (5.7% to lefties and 5.2% to righties) or in wOBA (.304 to lefties and .306 to righties). That command is necessary, because at this point in his career, he’s no longer really a strikeout pitcher.

After gaudy early-career strikeout numbers (24.9% as a rookie in 2011! 27.4% in 2016!) that were accompanied by high-ish walk rates, Pineda has changed his game — he’s become more of a zone-filler, pumping first strikes and inducing poor contact. His slider is an excellent pitch for that; it’s a weird, gyro-spinny thing that gets a lot of poor swings. It gets its fair share of chases but doesn’t quite have the movement to be a great two-strike putaway pitch. His fastball is more of the same; it’s roughly average in terms of whiffs per swing, but he used it aggressively to get ahead in counts, and it has enough life to avoid the center of bats.

He might never be a 30% strikeout rate guy, but both pitches do enough to keep batters off-balance, and the aggressive approach takes care of the rest. Pineda’s durability is always a question mark, but between the suspension lightening his workload in 2020 and the cost of the deal, the Twins don’t need him to be a 200-inning workhorse in either year of the contract for it to make sense. They’ll simply want 150 innings of a real major league pitcher, and anything beyond that will be pure upside.

It’s always hard to project a player post-suspension, but Pineda looks like a solid bet to provide innings and quality for the Twins in 2020. If he performs as well as Steamer (and his track record) predicts, this contract will be a great value for the Twins. But I think it’s short-sighted to say that Pineda got hosed on this one. The contract fits both sides, and I completely understand the impulse to get two years and a life-altering paycheck when faced with this level of uncertainty.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

Would Pineda be allowed to pitch in the postseason this season or does he suspension preclude that?

mike sixelmember
3 years ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

He can pitch in the post season, IIRC….