As an inveterate fancier of what might have been, I always find it fascinating to look at the twenty-something pitchers who got a chance to start for the Yankees during an era in which they didn’t believe in twenty-somethings. Starters 24 or younger in the years 1978-1993 included Dave Righetti, Mike Morgan, Jeff Johnson, Jim Beattie, Doug Drabek, Bob Wickman, Al Leiter, Dave Eiland, Sam Militello, Mike Griffin, Gene Nelson, Domingo Jean, Ken Clay, Sterling Hitchcock, and Jose Rijo, among a handful of others who were tried and found wanting.
Nelson and Griffin were considered top prospects, at least within the organization, at roughly the same time, the turn of the 1980s. In March, 1981, Griffin was 23 years old, had made all of nine major-league starts when he was bombed in a spring training game. George Steinbrenner, in one of his more cantankerous moods that day, said, "Mike Griffin has fooled us long enough. We found out about him today. That does it for him. He won’t be pitching for us this year. He has to go back to the minors and work his way up again, if he can."
Those days are gone, mostly. The Yankees would still seem to prefer someone else’s veteran to their own kids, but from time to time they try, such as with this winter’s trade of Jesus Montero to the Mariners for the 23-year-old Michael Pineda. With a strong rookie season in at the major-league level, Pineda is half a kid and half someone else’s veteran, but he was born in the right decade for the Yankees to get full credit for what amounts to a youth movement according to their own peculiar standards.
Still, the fear of youth that has so long marked the organization will never fade completely, which is why Andrew Marchand’s blog entry at ESPN today, positing that Pineda could begin the season in the minors, made so many twitchy—at least over on Twitter, the land of the twitchy. I don’t think there’s a chance of that happening aside from injury rehab—Pineda is going to be deemed healthy and will pitch the first week of the season or will found to be somehow injured and won’t. The in-between option, deciding that this former top prospect who was one of the game’s leading freshmen last year, is just another Nelson or Griffin and should be sent back for more—what? Seasoning?—and that trading Montero for this just-another-guy was a mistake, is not going to happen, and if it does, someone should be fired for making such a dramatic misread on the pitcher.
Let’s not even talk about undermining Pineda’s confidence. The kid was an All-Star, now you’re putting him on the Scranton traveling team.
"Seasoning" is the typical term here, but it’s incorrect. If a pitcher has achieved a certain level of accomplishment, and Pineda clearly has, the opportunity to learn in the minors disappears, replaced by an increasing chance of injury. All the major-league team is doing is killing time, or avoiding a problem. The transformative powers of the minor-league stint have been greatly overstated. Ability remains. Physical limitations remain. You can go to the Louvre, look at the Mona Lisa, then not return for ten years. You can do the same thing with whatever you doodled on your notepad while reading this piece. Even though we’ve delayed the reckoning by a decade, the Mona Lisa is still a classic and your doodle is still a doodle. You don’t get a better Pineda by demoting him, just a later Pineda.
The idea should be a nonstarter, unless Brian Cashman wants to go back to defending the Montero trade in terms of admitting that it was an instant failure. There is just no upside to such a move, in terms of baseball or public relations, and it isn’t going to happen.