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The 2016 season is pivotal for Michael Pineda's future with Yankees

Everything suggests that Pineda should be a frontline pitcher, but we've yet to see it for a full season. His performance this year will be critical in determining his future with the Yankees.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For years now, the story with Michael Pineda has always been potential. With high strikeout marks, extremely low walk rates, a good arsenal of pitches, and an intimidating build, the righty has given ample reason for optimism among fans. The problem, however, is that this potential has yet to really lead to results. Both the Yankees and Pineda himself need 2016 to be the year it all comes together.

Pineda has not posted a season in which he threw at least 100 innings with an ERA under 4.00 since 2011, his rookie season with the Mariners. He has surpassed 77 innings just twice in his career.and missed two full seasons due to his shoulder surgery. The two years in which he threw over 160 innings left something to be desired. While Pineda's peripherals have always been encouraging, the actual results haven't been there. He posted a 3.74 ERA across 171 innings in 2011, but was not effective for the full season; his ERA was 5.12 in the second half. Across 160.2 innings last year, the tall righty posted a very pedestrian 4.37 ERA, and an abysmal 5.80 ERA in the second half.

After missing time due to his shoulder injury, Pineda pitched great in 2014 when healthy, posting a 1.89 ERA, but he only threw those 76.1 innings. So through five seasons of Pineda's career, he has pitched effectively throughout an entire season zero times thanks to either injuries or second half collapses.

I don't mean to unfairly or harshly criticize Pineda, but this is simply the case. For all the talk of how good Pineda can be, he has yet to actually live up to his potential in a full season. All the optimism surrounding him, though, is completely justified when you look at his advanced metrics.

In 2011, he posted an impressive 9.11 K/9 and a solid 3.15 K/BB. He allowed less than one home run per nine innings, and overall had a 3.42 FIP with a 3.35 SIERA. 2014 was Pineda's most successful overall season thanks to a 1.89 ERA. He only threw 76.1 innings, but the peripherals backed up the result-based statistics. His strikeouts were down, less than seven per nine, but he was walking just 0.83 batters per nine innings, combining for an astounding 8.43 K/BB ratio. Last season was a subpar one for Pineda because of a bad second half and 4.37 season ERA, but the peripherals were again encouraging. He posted 8.74 strikeouts per nine, a 7.43 K/BB ratio, and a 3.34 FIP (over a run lower than his ERA).

So if Pineda is so good at striking people out and not walking batters--what's the problem? Why can't he parlay those low-3 FIPs into low-3 ERAs? Pineda's biggest issue is that he's just hittable. His opponents slashed .278/.301/.451 against him last season, and he allowed hard contact more than 30% of the time. Pineda is so good at throwing strikes that it's actually a problem because it makes him more hittable. He has control of the strike zone, but the command isn't quite as sharp.

There are a number of things Pineda can do to improve. One obvious solution is just locating his pitches better, especially with people on base. No matter what he tries, the bottom line is that 2016 is a crucial season for Pineda.

First, the Yankees just really need him to be effective. The rotation is filled with question marks from top to bottom, either injury or performance related, and they'll need as many guys as possible to hit closer to their ceiling than their floor. Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi and Pineda are a solid top four, but there's a good chance at least one of them will be injured or just underperform. Pineda needs to, of course, stay healthy, but he also needs to finally put it all together and pitch like a front-end starter consistently for close to 200 innings if the Yankee rotation is going to be successful.

Beyond just this season though, there are also questions about Pineda's future in pinstripes. A free agent after 2017, the Yankees will need to make a decision on the right-hander after this season. The Yankees have a few options; they can either trade him, extend him, or just let him test free agency, though that is the least ideal of the three options. His performance in 2016 will likely be the deciding factor.

If Pineda finally breaks out and posts a strong, full season, then he's clearly an extension candidate. Still just in his late-20's, locking up a (what would be) front-end starter for several more seasons so they don't lose him in free agency would make a load of sense.

If 2016 doesn't go well for Pineda though, either due to underperforming or injury, it's fair to wonder if he'll ever be the pitcher so many expect him to be. It's important to note that Eovaldi is also a free agent after 2017, and while the Yankees will have the money to keep both, that is very unlikely. They already have big money tied up in Tanaka, and then will probably want to keep a spot open for a big fish like Jose Fernandez (get it?) following the 2018 season, so it's unlikely they'll want to have big money deals with four starters. Pick one of Pineda/Eovaldi, then fill out the rotation with Severino and someone else.

If that's the case, it's reasonable to think the Yankees may move Pineda after 2016. Even if he doesn't have a breakout season, he'll have some value left (teams will always be drawn to a young guy with strong peripherals), and the Yanks will pull the trigger if they know they'll just lose him to free agency anyway.

Whether the Yankees choose to trade Pineda after 2016, extend him, or just let him become a free agent a year later is all dependent on what he does this season. It's time for "Big Mike" to take the next step and become the pitcher we all expect him to be.