(Sad Mike Pineda is sad. Courtesy of the AP)
The news of the Washington Nationals' decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg for the season caused major waves in the baseball world this past weekend, and with good reason. It's not every day that a team willingly shuts down its best pitcher during a playoff race. In fact, I can't think of any day where that's happened. The arguments for and against the move both have strong cases for being "right." Strasburg is the cornerstone of the franchise and the Nats have a lot riding on him. To risk his and the franchise's future at the expense of one year could be dangerous. On the other hand, many a baseball purist will argue that opportunities to reach and win a World Series are precious and few, and are never guaranteed. The Nats' chances of capitalizing on that opportunity this season are considerably diminished without Strasburg in the rotation.
The Yankees, while in no way directly affected by Washington's decision this season (unless they meet the Nats in the World Series), should be taking notes on how Washington handled Strasburg this season. They'll be looking at a similar situation next year with Michael Pineda.
Pineda hasn't been in the new much lately, which is probably a good thing considering he was being booked for DUI the last time we heard about him. But the most recent baseball-related reports on him had Pineda scheduled to start throwing again this month. While a quick glance might show the two scenarios to be apples and oranges, there actually are some similarities between Strasburg's case and Pineda's. They're both big right-handed power pitchers with similar repertoires (fastball-curveball-change for Strasburg, fastball-slider-change for Pineda), they're similar in age (Strasburg turned 24 in July, Pineda turned 23 in January), and they're both dealing with their first major arm injuries of their respective careers.
The biggest difference between the two is obviously the nature of their injuries. Strasburg suffered a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John Surgery and Pineda an anterior tear to his labrum. TJS, despite still being very serious, has become almost an everyday part of baseball talk, like a badge of honor that announcers can refer to when discussing a pitcher's career path. Shoulder injuries are typically more devastating and potentially detrimental to a pitcher's career, and yet they still don't seem to get the same coverage as TJS. With all we now know about the history of the injury Pineda suffered, discussing his comeback in relation to Strasburg's seems perfectly appropriate.
Strasburg suffered his injury and had his TJS in August of 2010, over 2 full years ago. He was able to pitch 44.0 total innings in 2011 as part of his rehab to prepare him for a (near)full season in 2012, but with Strasburg never accumulating close to a full Major League season's worth of innings on his arm before the injury, the decision was made to play it safe with that innings count this year. Pineda doesn't have that innings count problem; he racked up 171.0 IP in the Majors in 2011 and 139.1 total IP across 2 levels of the Minors in 2010. Even going back to his debut pro season, Pineda threw 138.1 innings in A-ball in 2008, whereas Strasburg threw a total of just 123.1 in his first pro season in 2010 before suffering his elbow injury.
While the higher innings buildup prior to injury could be seen as a reason for the Yankees to not worry as much about Pineda's comeback, the hit-or-miss recovery success rate from labral tear surgery and the success the Nats had taking the slow and steady approach to Strasburg's comeback could outweigh Pineda's history. Strasburg returned to the mound on August 7, 2011, a little less than 12 months after surgery, and was still handled carefully before being shut down this year. His innings count this season went from 44.0 to 159.1, a roughly 35-inning increase from his 2010 total. Having suffered his injury prior to the start of this season, Pineda will not have the luxury of a previous innings count to work from. He's going from 171 in 2011 to 0 in 2012 to whatever it's going to be for 2013. His increased previous workload, past elbow injury concerns from 2009, and the similar 12-14-month recovery period for his labrum surgery make a Strasburgian innings limit in 2013 look like a good idea.
What may end up having a bigger influence on Pineda's path may have nothing to do with Pineda himself but rather the drastic difference in organizational history and philosophy between the Nats and the Yanks. Washington has languished at the bottom of the NL East since they became the Nationals. Having the type of success they're having this year and knowing they're going to make the postseason makes it a little easier to err on the side of caution with Strasburg. And having a strong young core set up for the next couple years (Strasburg, Bryce Harper, the Zimmermans, Ian Desmond, Gio Gonzalez, Tyler Clippard), while guaranteeing nothing, gives the Washington front office the comfort of knowing that they will at least be in a good position to make more runs at a World Series title in the near future. For them, that's a victory in and of itself and getting that small victory makes it easier to play the "just happy to be here" card this season and plan for the future.
The Yankees don't have the luxury of falling back on small victories and planning for the future. The future is always now in New York and that future goal is always to win a World Series. Pitching is what helps get you get there, it's definitely what helps win it, and the Yankees are going to need pitching help again next season. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte will both be free agents, CC Sabathia may or may not be experiencing the beginnings of decline, Ivan Nova took a major step backwards in 2012, and counting on Phil Hughes and David Phelps to step up and each provide 200+ "good" to "very good" innings is just not logical. The Yankees might need Michael Pineda next year, just like they needed him this year, and playing it safe with Pineda's innings might not fly if it interferes with the ultimate goal of raising a World Series trophy.
Thinking bigger picture, and considering what they gave up to get him, it would be to the Yankees' benefit to be careful with Pineda. Even with Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi having poor seasons (combined -0.-4 fWAR) the Yankees are still the no-doubt losers of that trade right now. With plenty of people still seeing Montero as a future masher, the Yankees need to maximize the value they get from Pineda while he's still under team control. They can't risk him suffering a setback or a more severe injury to his shoulder as a result of not monitoring and controlling his workload. Better to sacrifice 1 more year for the chance at multiple great years than to turn Pineda into the 21st century version of Brien Taylor. That outcome wouldn't exactly be a resume builder for Cash.
If the Yankees do decide to follow in Washington's footsteps with Pineda, they might not have to get very creative to do it. Pineda is already slated for a return to action in May of 2013 at the earliest, a month after the regular season starts. Assuming that he won't be quite up to 100% game strength by then, it's reasonable to expect his pitch/inning count to be kept down early and then ramped up once they see how the shoulder feels. Missing April and pitching abbreviated outings in May and June should set Pineda up for 160-180 innings next season, the same target range that the Nats had for Strasburg this year. And the Yankees would still have Pineda IN the rotation at season's end rather than waiting around for the plug to be pulled on him like Strasburg was this season.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Michael Pineda's return from his labrum surgery. He's young, he went through the surgery without any issues, he's received positive feedback on the rehab work he's already done in preparation for the startup of his throwing program, and he didn't do any damage to his rotator cuff or shoulder capsule. But it still won't be as simple as inserting him into the rotation when he's ready and letting him go. There are lessons to be learned from the Nationals' handling of Stephen Strasburg this year, and it remains to be seen how or if the Yankees plan to implement those lessons.