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Five years later, the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero trade still teaches lessons

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A journey into how one trade speaks to the transcendent moments of being a baseball fan.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Bill James once wrote that it takes five years to properly evaluate a trade. “There are trades where this is misleading of course, “ he clarified, “but as a general rule five years is quite enough for the direction of the result to be well established.”

The five-year window on the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero swap closes this week. On January 13, 2012, the Yankees and the Mariners agreed to a trade that still raises controversy and invites debate. While some deals come and go, filed away into the backgrounds of our collective subconscious, this one stands out. It remains a talking point five years later.

According to virtually every measurement, the Yankees won the trade. To date, Pineda has accrued 5.6 bWAR during his tour in pinstripes. Montero, on the other hand, has been worth -0.8 bWAR and is no longer with Seattle. Pineda beats Montero in every category, but that doesn’t paint a full picture. This trade goes beyond numbers and metrics, beyond wins and losses, and speaks to the highs and lows of baseball. It shows what it means to be a fan invested in the game.

And it’s as relevant as ever with the Yankees holding the top-ranked farm system in baseball.

***

I remember exactly where I was when news of the trade broke.

It was a Friday night and I was helping a friend move back into his dorm after winter break. We finished unpacking and began brainstorming plans for the evening. As he texted friends with whom we could go out, I unlocked my Blackberry and opened Twitter. Within seconds I froze, staring at the screen and searching for words. “Could it be?”, I asked. “No, it couldn’t.”

There it was, though, in black and white, the damning words from Jon Heyman:

My temporary paralysis quickly turned to a flutter of scrolling. I couldn’t get enough information. Who else was in the deal? Hector Noesi and Vicente Campos, I soon learned. How long will it take to finalize? A thousand questions entered my head.

Earlier in the day, Jerry Crasnick tweeted that Seattle was close to acquiring a young, impact bat. I remember reading that and thinking, “good for them.” I never expected that the young bat they were closing in on was Montero, however. He was supposed to be the Yankees’ next homegrown superstar. He was our young impact bat.

It was just months earlier that Montero made his major-league debut at Yankee Stadium. The long-awaited top prospect arrived in style, too. In 18 games, he hit .328/.406/.590 with four home runs, including this pair:

He made the Yankees’ postseason roster. Then he was traded for Pineda. I knew that Pineda made the All-Star team in 2011, but that seemed so underwhelming. Montero came with the allure of superstardom, big home runs, and clutch playoff hits. Pineda wasn’t even the best starter on his own staff, admittedly anchored by super-ace Felix Hernandez.

If I recall correctly, that was the first time that I got mad on Twitter. I ranted about the deal in several since-deleted tweets. The only surviving memento was a celebration of the Yankees signing Hiroki Kuroda, who gets unfairly overshadowed in discussions of the night of January 13, 2012. (Pinstripe Alley was in a rage, too.)

My friend completed his texts and phone calls by the time I logged off of Twitter. He was unsuccessful in arranging plans, but promised to try again later. I delivered the bad news, and as a more-than-casual Yankees fan, he was shocked. We stood stunned by a trade that came out of nowhere and changed everything.

We didn’t end up going out that night. Instead, we stayed inside and drank beer, talking about the trade that was more important than we could begin to understand.

***

It’s not out of the ordinary for a baseball trade to have highs and lows. Over the course of a deal, there will be moments of celebration and experiences of buyer’s remorse. The Pineda-Montero trade, however, took this idea to extreme levels.

Pineda’s Yankees career began auspiciously. He arrived to spring training overweight and out of shape. He lacked zip on his fastball. His wipeout slider wasn’t as advertised. He didn’t look good at all.

As a fan, this was tough to watch. I talked myself into rooting for Pineda in the weeks following the trade. I still missed Montero, but I was on board for a rotation fronted by CC Sabathia, Pineda, and Kuroda. A few days after the deal, Brian Cashman told Jim Bowden that the trade would be a mistake if Pineda didn’t develop into a number-one type of starter.

I envisioned a power right-hander complementing Sabathia, a dynamic 1-2 punch. As spring training wore on, however, it became abundantly clear that those dreams weren’t going to come true that season. For the second time in two months, I was mad on Twitter.

Then came the injury. Pineda missed the start of the season, and on April 26th, the Yankees announced that he would require surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He suffered the tear while rehabbing another shoulder injury. The recovery timetable was bleak. The crown piece in the trade wouldn’t pitch for the Yankees in 2012. It was unclear if he would even pitch in 2013.

Meanwhile, Montero managed a productive first season in Seattle. He didn’t live up to the hype created during his cup of coffee in 2011, but he was on the roster and hitting. He finished the 2012 campaign with a .260/.298/.386 slash line and 15 home runs in 135 games.

While Montero was contributing in actual major-league games, Pineda was getting arrested for DWI. This was the lowest point of the trade. Pineda not only failed on the field, but also in character. He inexcusably put innocent lives in danger. It took a long time to root for Pineda in the first place. Now, he squandered whatever goodwill he had left. From a fan’s perspective, the trade was an unmitigated disaster.

***

It’s amazing how quickly the winds of change blow in baseball. By 2013, Montero’s complete inability to catch and later hit pushed him off of Seattle’s roster and into Triple-A. He was out of the organization by spring early 2016. All told, he owned a .247/.285/.383 batting line with 24 home runs in 208 games with Mariners. He also struggled to keep in shape, served a suspension for Biogenesis connection, and fought with a scout in the now-infamous ice cream sandwich incident.

He latched on with the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in 2016, but was served a 50-game suspension after testing positing for dimethylbutylamine and never played in the majors. He agreed to a minor-league deal with the Orioles on January 3rd of this year, per Jon Heyman. The once-elite prospect became the veritable definition of a bust.

Pineda, on the other hand, was finally ready to pitch for the Yankees in 2014. The rehab took longer than expected, but he arrived to spring training of that year with a chance to win a rotation spot. After all that we had been through, it became easier to root for Pineda again. In fact, every little achievement proved worthy of celebration.

The much-anticipated debut came with great success, albeit in limited time. A suspension for flagrantly using pine tar and a subsequent injury held him to just 13 starts, or 76.1 innings. Nothing could be easy with this deal. Still, “Big Mike” posted a 1.89 ERA with a 2.71 FIP. He also managed a 7.0 K/9 rate. All together, he was worth 2.7 bWAR. For a pitcher who missed a significant portion of the season (as well as the previous two entirely), this was outstanding.

The Yankees missed the playoffs in 2014 and were a largely mediocre club, but Pineda was incredible, better than advertised. As fans who had to deal with the lackluster 2013 and 2014 clubs, his performance offered hope for the future. He was going to be that top starter Cashman talked about. It took longer than expected, but that was okay. The next Yankees ace was emerging.

It was expected that Pineda would take the next step forward in 2015. For a moment, it looked like he did. Through May 5th, he owned a 2.97 ERA with a 2.17 FIP and an impressive 8.69 K/9 rate. It wasn’t quite the dominance that he flashed in 2014, but it was still very good.

Then, on Mother’s Day, he did this:

His 16 strikeouts tied David Cone for most in a single game by a right-hander in Yankees history. I truly thought that he had a chance at Ron Guidry’s record 18 strikeouts. Pineda was that good. I can say with confidence that this was one of the most dominant pitching performances I’ve ever seen. He had put it all together and made the trade worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the success proved unsustainable. In the time since the 16-strikeout game, Pineda has posted a 4.82 ERA with a 3.76 FIP. He still strike out a ton, but he also gives up an inordinate amount of home runs. As Ben Diamond recently pointed out, depending on his pitch location, Pineda can either fan 10 batters or allow eight runs in four innings. It’s not crazy for those two instances to happen in the same game.

Pineda has now carved out a niche as one of the most enigmatic pitchers in baseball. He’s settled in as a mid-to-backend type of starter, the kind who flashes brilliance inconsistent with the results. Pineda’s pitching serves a nice microcosm for his Yankees’ career. There are moments of transcendence, moments where it appears that he will never allow another hit again. Then there are crushing lows, where he can’t make it out of the first few innings a game, when the opposing lineup starts playing home run derby. The complete Michael Pineda experience has been on display for about two seasons now.

***

In a way, this offseason feels eerily similar to its 2011-2012 counterpart.

In both instances, the Yankees were in desperate need of pitching. Cashman told reporters in November that he was on the lookout for “pitching, pitching, pitching.” There are two rotation spots up for grabs, but the market is so thin that the Yankees don’t figure to make any more moves. There are internal options, but they aren’t exactly inspiring.

Heading into the 2012 season, the Yankees also needed rotation help. The team relied on Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon the previous year. While they brought Garcia back, that still left more to be desired. They didn’t bid much for Yu Darvish, the price for free agents like Edwin Jackson was too high, and the trade market was limited. It appeared that the Yankees were in for a quiet offseason in terms of pitching before it all changed on a cold Friday evening in mid-January.

As far as baseball is concerned, plans can change in an instant. Top prospects and young talents, who were never thought to be available, could be traded. It’s happened time and time again, and will continue to happen so long as there’s a hot stove season. Who knows—it might be the Yankees who swing the next blockbuster.

This is worth mentioning because the Yankees have arguably the premier farm system in baseball. They also have their highest touted prospect, in Gleyber Torres, since Montero. According to Jim Callis, Torres slots as his second-best prospect in the game. Coming off his MVP campaign in the Arizona Fall League, his trade value is astronomically high. He would command the young, frontline starter that has eluded the Yankees in recent offseasons.

Now that’s not to say that Torres is on the trading block, nor is it to suggest that he should be traded. Trading prospects is part of the game. Living through these trades is part of being a fan. Should a future deal come, however, it’s important to remember that we’ve been there before. The Pineda-Montero trade illustrates that in the clearest possible way.

***

In the film Fever Pitch, Jimmy Fallon’s character attempted to put into words what it meant to be a baseball fan. “I like being part of something that's bigger than me, than I,” he said. “It's good for your soul to invest in something you can't control.”

Over the last five years, this trade put those words into action. There were peaks and valleys; breathtaking surprises and utterly predictable failures; moments of victory and of loss. Our collective experience of the trade covered the spectrum of what it feels like to be a fan.

It’s unknown if Pineda figures to be a part of the Yankees’ long-term plans. He is slated for free agency following this season. While I haven’t made up my mind about whether or not I would like to see him back, I know one thing for certain. Despite all of the low points and the frustrations, I’m grateful for the trade. It reminded me why I’m a baseball fan in the first place.