We've been tip-toeing around this for the last few weeks. Coming into camp, I predicted that Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda would begin the regular season in Tacoma, both because they each have things to work on, and because they each have service time issues to keep in mind. However, while Ackley still seems like a near-lock to go down, I've been hearing more and more often that Pineda could stick, and earlier today Geoff Baker went so far as to say the fifth starter job is Pineda's to lose.
During that interview with Kevin Calabro the other day, Jack Zduriencik was asked point-blank whether the service time stuff would play any part in the team's decision, and Z's response was a direct "no". I didn't pay it much attention at the time, just because Z had to say no, but the sense I'm getting - as supported by Baker's piece - is that Pineda really is the favorite. Rather than having to pitch himself into the job, he'll have to pitch himself out of it. And to pitch himself out of it, he'll have to lose that job to Luke French.
The natural response to this - at least for some people - is that bringing Pineda up immediately would be an irresponsible and short-sighted decision. Doing so would put Pineda on track to make seven figures by 2014 and become eligible for free agency after 2016, where just waiting a month or two could push both of those dates back a year. And, obviously, this is a good argument. Baseball teams make personnel decisions based on things like this.
But I do think it's worth remembering that there are good reasons not to hold Pineda back. The first, and the simplest, is that Pineda is probably one of the organization's top five starting pitchers. If he's better than French, he deserves to be higher on the depth chart. It helps the team win more games.
Another reason is that Pineda might get better instruction in Seattle than Tacoma. I think we all know that Pineda could use some work on his slider, changeup, and consistency. An argument for sending him down is that he could work on things in a lower-pressure environment. But in Seattle, he'd get Major League attention and coaching, and he'd get feedback from Major League hitters. You don't learn to succeed against the highest level of competition by playing in a lower level of competition.
Then there's the pseudo-team chemistry argument, as Baker discusses. There's no denying that Pineda is an exciting prospect, and the Mariners see it. The players watch him pitch. They see his stuff, and they know how good he could be. Those players are probably going to want Pineda in the rotation, and I'd imagine they'd be happier handing the ball to Pineda than handing the ball to French, even if they'll never admit it.
Pineda would also presumably get the fan base more enthused. The fans are buying into the whole youth-movement thing, and Pineda's a popular figure.
And beyond that, remember that Michael Pineda is a pitching prospect. We know how good he is, and how healthy he is, right now. We do not know how good or how healthy he'll be in three years, or six years, when those service time issues really become a factor. Ackley's a bit more projectable, just because he's a position player. Pitchers are volatile, and who's to say how much that extra year of team control would matter?
There are arguments to be made for both sides, here. Good, intelligent, compelling arguments. And while I still lean towards sending Pineda down, I am not so confident in my preference that I think doing otherwise would be stupid or irresponsible. There's a lot of good that could come from bringing Pineda straight up. I know I'd be excited, it could help develop a good relationship between the player and the team, and as Matthew noted in the last podcast, it still wouldn't guarantee a lost year of service time anyway since Pineda could theoretically be send down to Tacoma in the event that he struggles.
This is a tough call, and no matter what choice the Mariners end up making, I'll understand. Don't listen to anybody who takes a hard stance, because the only people in position to take a hard stance work for the organization. I'll defer to the M's on this one, and if the M's choose to hand the game ball to Michael Pineda in the first week of the season, any disappointment would be outweighed by a level of excitement I haven't felt for any single game in years.