A few hours ago, news broke that the Yankees finally shipped Jesus Montero to Seattle for their premium right-handed starting pitcher. However, despite a couple of years of rumors and suggestions, Felix Hernandez is not the one donning pinstripes – the Yankees landed 23-year-old (in five days, anyway) Michael Pineda instead.
While Pineda isn’t King Felix, he’s a pretty terrific young pitcher in his own right. He jumped directly into the Mariners rotation out of spring training last year and was good enough to make the All-Star team in his rookie season. And, while Safeco Field is a nice place for a rookie pitcher to learn his craft, Pineda did most of the good work on his own.
Among qualified AL starting pitchers last year, only Brandon Morrow and Justin Verlander posted a higher strikeout rate than Pineda, who whiffed 24.9% of the batters he faced. His K% was better than David Price, CC Sabathia, and yes, even Felix. Pineda’s live fastball and willingness to live up in the strike zone led to a lot of swinging strikes, and that had nothing to do with the park he played in.
Lots of young pitchers can throw hard and rack up strikeouts, however. What sets Pineda apart is his impeccable command at such a young age. 66 percent of the pitches he threw last year were strikes, and his 7.9% BB% was below the league average. It is highly uncommon to see a kid with that kind of live arm arrive in the Major Leagues pounding the zone, but that’s exactly what Pineda did. 94-97 MPH fastballs to get ahead, and then an out-pitch slider or a fastball out of the zone with two strikes to get the K. It was a recipe for success, and Pineda used his command of those two pitches to establish himself as one of the game’s best young starting pitchers.
So, while he’s not perfect (his change-up is lousy and left-handers can still jump on him from time to time), Yankees fans should be thrilled with their new addition. And, given the price that other young arms have been fetching this winter, they should be even more thrilled with the cost.
Pineda is the third quality young arm to get traded this winter, following the trades that shipped Gio Gonzalez to Washington and Mat Latos to Cincinnati. Given that both pitchers come with one fewer year of team control and lack Pineda’s dominating fastball, a strong case could be made that the Yankees new starter is the most valuable asset of the three guys that were moved. However, compared to the other two packages surrendered, the Yankees didn’t really pay much of a premium to get Pineda, and one could even make an argument that they gave up less value overall than what the Reds surrendered to get Latos.
Jesus Montero is a good prospect, no doubt. I like him less than most, but he’s clearly a valuable trade chip. Given his strong Major League performance and the lingering hope among some folks that he might stick at catcher, he’s more valuable than any single piece surrendered in either the Latos or Gonzalez deals. But, in both of those trades, the acquiring team not only had to part with a top 50 prospect, but they also had to include several other pieces of value as well. In the Reds case, Yonder Alonso had to be accompanied by another top 100 prospect in Yasmani Grandal, a solid Major League ready relief arm in Brad Boxberger, and an interesting buy-low Major League starter in Edinson Volquez. Those secondary pieces by themselves would be enough to land a good Major League player, and they had to serve as add-ons to Alonso in order to acquire Latos.
For the Yankees, however, not only did they not have to surrender multiple prospects along with Montero, the value of the secondary players in the trade might actually lean in favor of New York.
Hector Noesi is a Major League ready arm with good command and impressive minor league performances, but not everyone is convinced the secondary stuff is good enough to keep him in the rotation long term. He pitched fairly well for New York out of the bullpen last year, but his strikeout rate against RHBs (23.1%) was nearly double his rate against LHBs (12.8%). If he loses a tick off his fastball in a transition back to the rotation, he could profile more as a back-end starter or good setup guy. There’s certainly value in that, especially to a team like the Mariners who play in a big park and generally run out good defensive clubs, but Noesi isn’t a super high upside arm.
Campos, on the other hand, could be special. While he’s nowhere close to the Majors, having spent the season in the short-season Northwest League as a 19-year-old, he regularly sat in the mid-90s and showed terrific command of one very plus pitch. His secondary stuff is raw, as you’d expect from a kid with minimal experience, but he’s a live arm who throws strikes and was rated the third best prospect in his league, despite playing against a group of players with college experience. Campos is the riskiest of all prospects – an undeveloped pitching prospect who is years from the big leagues – but has undeniable upside, and could turn out to be a very valuable piece in his own right.
Whether you prefer Campos’ upside or Noesi’s proximity to the Majors, it’s clear that the other pieces in this deal don’t skew heavily towards Seattle’s side. In reality, the Mariners really only got Montero for Pineda, while the A’s and Padres were able to get packages of young talent in return for their young arms.
Maybe Montero’s good enough by himself to justify being the sole piece of value, but based on what other teams were paying for good young pitching this winter, I would have expected the Yankees to have to surrender a bit more than they gave up. The Yankees should not only be happy to have added a big time arm to their rotation, but should be excited that they didn’t have to decimate the farm system in order to do it.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.