The Montero-Pineda Trade: Rotation Upgrade at a Sustainable Cost

This trade came down while I was co-hosting BP’s Friday night radio show on SiriusXM, and as we chatted about the deal, I could only look on helplessly as Twitter filled up with invective directed against the trade by Yankees fans. I understand the disappointment at losing Jesus Montero, but if you look at the deal objectively, it is impossible to argue it’s a bad one for New York. Stacked together, the top of the Yankees’ rotation is 13-foot-2, weighs 550 pounds, and struck out 403 batters last year. Whatever else you think of the deal, remember that. It is a fact.

In adding the 6’7", 260 pound Michael Pineda, 23 in four days, to slot in behind CC Sabathia, the Yankees have achieved an aggregation of pitching mass likely unequaled in the history of baseball. More importantly, they acquired one of the best young pitching talents in baseball, a right-hander who a year ago was listed as the #16 prospect (and #7 pitching prospect) in all of baseball. Since that ranking, Pineda pitched a full season in the big leagues, posting a 3.74 ERA, striking out 173 batters (9.1 per nine) while walking only 55 (2.9 per nine), and limited batters to 133 hits in 171 innings. He represented the Mariners at the All-Star Game and finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

Pineda’s fastball sits around 95 and goes higher, and he has a swing-and-miss slider to go with it. There is also a changeup, but it’s notional and—well, you know all of this stuff if you’ve been on line at all today. Here are the negatives you’re going to hear about:

• He dominated right-handed hitters, but the lack of a good change means that lefties hit, well, still not well, but better.
• His ERA was 2.92 in pitcher-friendly Safeco, 4.40 on the road.
• His first-half ERA was 3.03, his second-half ERA was 5.12.
• He has fly-ball tendencies, which is a problem in Yankee Stadium.
• Batters hit .261 on balls in play, and such things don’t last.
• They could have gotten Cliff Lee or Felix Hernandez for him.
• He could get hurt.
• He cost the Yankees Jesus Montero, a very fine young hitter.

To these things, I reply, in reverse order:

• Montero may hit very well, but he doesn’t have a position, and that is always going to put pressure on him to hit extremely well. Getting a fully developed pitcher who has ace-level stuff for a bat-only player is a no-brainer.
• Yes, he could. Pitchers do that. However, you still need pitchers, especially good young ones.
• No. If they could have, they would have. Given that Montero’s lack of position made him a difficult fit for most or all teams, not just the Yankees, it was always going to take a lot more to get a Cy Young winner.
• Such things do not last. However, Pineda may develop other compensations. He is a second-year pitcher who was not a finished product last year. The Mariners absorbed his on-the-job training. The Yankees reap the benefit, at least in theory.
• The fly balls will go out at a higher rate in New York. However, with enough strikeouts, it won’t matter.
• Glass half full: he got tired, having never pitched so many innings before. Glass half empty: the league figured him out and he couldn’t adjust. Either way, a year of experience should help mitigate the problem.
• Again, we have to see what a year of added experience does for Pineda. What he was last year, he may not be in the future, but the stuff and command remains.
• Yeah, well, you can’t have everything, but this does bear watching given Yankee Stadium’s proclivities.

I know we’ve been told for a few years now that Montero was going to be a huge impact hitter in the majors, and he may yet be that, but the Yankees had made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t a catcher for them, or anything at all. At the winter meetings, Joe Girardi was asked who the starting catcher was. A: Russell Martin. Is Montero the reserve catcher? A: No, that’s Francisco Cervelli. Well, is he even the reserve first baseman? A: If Mark Teixeira got hurt, Nick Swisher would play there. Now, nothing says that Montero might not be spectacularly valuable in that role, as Edgar Martinez was. But I use Martinez’s name pointedly—he was one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time. You have to be that good to have value without a glove, or else a team could find a player who might hit only three-quarters as well but also provides a benefit in terms of fielding, baserunning, and roster flexibility.

I should note the Yankees also gave up Hector Noesi, a likely middle-reliever/back-end starter, but received teenager Jose Campos, a right-handed pitcher who has good stuff and excellent command. He’s a million years away from the majors, but he’s a real prospect.

Meanwhile, the starting rotation had been a scary place. Sabathia, Ivan Nova—a candidate for regression, A.J. Burnett—a candidate for never being good again, Phil Hughes—who knows?, and Freddy Garcia—coming off his first good year in six. That assemblage hardly inspired fear. Now, with the addition of Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, signed to a one-year deal tonight, the Yankees have, among other things, a rotation in which every starter’s name ends in the letter "A" if Garcia is in it, but the bigger point is that Garcia doesn’t have to be in it, or Hughes doesn’t, or even, and perhaps especially, Burnett doesn’t. They have depth and they have choices.

You know me: I would like to see the Yankees go with youth whenever possible, and in dealing Montero they lose the one ready hitter they had at the upper levels. However, Pineda is a kid also, of a better quality than any of last year’s Triple-A stalwarts and battletested. He is more of a sure thing at this moment than is either of the Killer Bs. As for Kuroda, at 37 he’s hardly a kid, but he does have impeccable command, and on a one-year basis the risk is minimal and no one is getting blocked on a permanent basis. I’d be more disappointed were he taking the rotation spot of a 22-year-old, but he isn’t—it wasn’t him it would have been Garcia or even Hughes, going on 26 and no longer a kid but another of dozens of mid-twenties ex-prospects looking to get established in the big leagues.

In all, Brian Cashman and the Yankees did well for themselves on Friday night. As I said at the outset, I saw a good deal of hostility towards this deal in the early going, but keep one thing in mind: Montero may or may not prove to be something special, but the Yankees now have two hulking strikeout pitchers at the top of their rotation. There is nothing speculative about that statement, and therein lies the genius of the deal.

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