The 2011 Seattle Mariners aren't going to hit a whole lot. They'll hit more than the 2010 Seattle Mariners did, since a failure to do so would mean that two years of the Mariners were nearly outscored by one year of the 1999 Cleveland Indians, but I don't think it's any secret that the hopes for a successful season will once again rest on the run prevention.
And the run prevention, I think, has two major variables. We can expect the team defense to be pretty good. We can expect Felix Hernandez to be awesome, and Jason Vargas and Doug Fister to be okay. We can expect the bullpen to be talented and inconsistent. Which leaves us with Erik Bedard and Michael Pineda. Two guys with ace-like talent, but two guys who're something of a mystery looking ahead.
There's no point in our trying to figure out what Bedard's going to do ahead of time. He could literally end up anywhere on the spectrum of possible outcomes. He could do absolutely nothing, he could throw 180 magnificent innings, and he could end up anywhere in between. It's impossible to say, and that's part of what makes him so exciting to have. But Pineda - Pineda, we can work with. So let's take a look ahead and try to find some realistic expectations.
First things first: I don't think we should expect Pineda to break camp with the team. I know there's been a lot of talk, and that talk is warranted. He has the stuff to start the second game of the season. But, as always, there's the service time aspect to keep in mind. If the Mariners hold off on promoting Pineda to the bigs for a little while, they'll control him through the 2017 season. The long-term benefits of keeping him down outweigh the short-term benefits of giving him a few extra starts for a team that's unlikely to contend.
So that's the first thing. Beyond that, we should expect Pineda to work with some kind of innings limit. He went from 47 innings in 2009 to 139 in 2010, and the organization probably won't want him to exceed 170-180 or so next year. He only turns 22 in two weeks and he's dealt with arm injuries before, so there's every reason to take it easy on him.
Given those two things, I think we can project a healthy Michael Pineda to throw something like 100-120 innings as a Seattle Mariner next season. What should we expect to see over those 100-120 innings?
We'll see Pineda dominate at times with a mid- to high-90s tailing fastball, of which he has pretty good command. He likes to work up in the zone, leading to a lot of swinging strikes, and that's a good foundation for any starting pitcher. If you can get batters to swing through your fastball, you're probably going to generate a lot of strikeouts and limit run-scoring opportunities.
Between his fastball and slider, Pineda should have little problem working against right-handed batters pretty much from the minute he first steps on a Major League mound. No one's immune to making mistakes and on occasion he'll get burned, but he should nevertheless be highly effective.
The struggles, I imagine, will come against lefties. And though that doesn't seem like a critical issue, since left-handed bats are greatly outnumbered by right-handed bats, many teams will have enough lefties around to stack their lineups. The Rangers will probably start four. The Angels will probably start four or five. The A's will probably start five or six. Felix has faced 53% lefties over the course of his career, and I'd expect Pineda to see a similar breakdown.
It's not that I expect Pineda to be bad when confronted with a left-handed batter. But his changeup still needs work. His cutter still needs work. And his fastball, thrown from his low arm angle, will act similar to a two-seamer, a pitch which shows a wide platoon split.
You can see it in his recent history. Unfortunately, MinorLeagueSplits.com is no longer with us, but Pineda's MinorLeagueBaseball.com page is up and provides the following limited information from his time in Tacoma:
vs. LHB: 3.5 BB/9, 9.4 K/9
vs. RHB: 1.6 BB/9, 12.3 K/9
Pineda was fairly effective against lefties, but his walks were way up and his strikeouts were way down relative to his performance against righties, and I see no reason to believe that the situation will be much different with the Mariners in 2011. The only change is that the hitters he'll be facing as a Mariner will be far more talented than the hitters he faced as a Rainier.
So Pineda, for the near future, seems to be project as a guy with terrific raw stuff who struggles with inconsistency, where the lousy bouts are strongly correlated to runs of left-handed hitters. That's a pitcher who can be effective, overall, but only moderately so. Felix was always pretty good, but he didn't truly ascend to the throne until he figured out how to stop getting punished by lefties. Pineda may follow a similar course.
That about sums up the most objective and realistic projection I can manage, and off the top of my head, the end result is probably an ERA somewhere around the high-3's. How quickly Pineda gets better will depend on how quickly he can further develop his secondary offerings. His fastball is already good enough. That's the big plus. It's possible that he comes out in March throwing a better change, in which case we can get more excited than we already are. That would set his immediate projection quite a bit higher. But in all likelihood, I think there'll be some growing pains, and those counting on Pineda to blossom into a terrifying ace would be best off demonstrating some patience.
If everything goes right, the Mariners will spend much of the 2011 season featuring three ace-quality starters. I don't need to tell you that everything seldom goes right.