In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post will be entirely about the Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero deal that was completed less than a week ago. I know, like the rest of you know, that this has been analyzed to death. Yet I believe the consensus Yankee-land, and the blogosphere in particular, have come to over the past week is incomplete. After some initial hysteria, some initial doubt as to the wisdom of trading Jesus Montero, we have settled into a comfortable position of restrained optimism. Brian Cashman did his job well, he got good value, the trade will help us in the short term and puts us in a good position to compete in the long run. The conclusion drawn by the majority is, in my view, correct. This was a good deal, one that will both hurt and help, but on balance the right move. None of this is wrong and I agree whole-heartedly with the sentiments expressed by Jim Bowden on the night of the trade. Bowden tweeted:
Yankees GM Brian Cashman continues to show why he’s one of the games best GM’s as he acquires one of the few future #1 starters in the game
But it was another Bowden’s tweets that caught my eye. It was another of Bowden’s tweets that made me question the general analysis of this trade and wonder whether fans and analysts were focusing on the wrong aspects of the deal. In both it’s truth and falsehood, these 140 or so characters revealed much about the Yankees real strategy here while working to erode this restrained-but-shallow optimism and cognitive dissidence that’s so hard to avoid.
Brian Cashman told me last night that Michael Pineda better improve the change-up & develop into a #1 starter or he will have made a mistake
Powerful words. Pineda “better” improve. He “better” develop into a number one starter, among the rarest commodities in baseball. If not, Brian Cashman will have made a “mistake.” On some level this is an oversimplification on the part of Cashman. The performance of both Pineda AND Montero, and of course of the secondary pieces, will have an impact on the success or failure of this deal. But on another level, these blunt words cut through a facade of short-sightedness and vague neutralities that often overcomes any analysis of “fair” trades in their infancy. Of course we don’t know how this trade will look in five or ten years. Any analysis of a trade within days of said move must be filled with qualifiers and cautious language. But I think we are, as a community, missing or at least failing to emphasize what would make this trade a success or failure and what is likely to happen. We are instead focusing on a macro value analysis that skips over details that require more thought.
What strikes me as so vastly important about that tweet, important to any contemporary analysis of this deal, any analysis that can put the reader in the shoes of the Yankees front office at the time of the deal, devoid of the hindsight of the future or short-sightedness of the present, is the clarity with which success and failure is addressed. First, the Yankees front-office views this deal as a long-term move. This isn’t about the 2012 Yankees, though it makes that team better; or even the 2013 Yankees. It isn’t and wasn’t about acquiring a second starter to pair with CC Sabathia. Not in the slightest. This was about trading a 22-year-old and a 24-year-old for another 22-year-old and a 19-year-old. This is all about the long term, about the next decade or more. Second, Cashman clearly defines what these long-term goals are. Though I think his general view, or at least the general view he presents to the public, is wrongheaded and oversimplified, though I think he fails to properly evaluate Michael Pineda, he clearly sets forward a framework with which to evaluate his thinking and it’s success or failure in the long term.
So what is, you may ask, missing from previous Montero-Pineda discussion? For one, I think there is a vast difference between a starting pitcher who can complete a full season with a 3.6 or 3.7 ERA and a starting pitcher who can win a Cy Young award. There is a vast difference between hitting .285 with 25 home runs and a decent on base percentage and hitting like Miguel Cabrera. If we are to properly evaluate this trade, to be honest with ourselves, to know what to expect and what to hope for, we must decide which scenarios would make the Yankees a better team and which scenarios are likely to occur. We have to figure out what makes this trade a success in the long run and how we might get there. After all, this is the fan base that was promised an ace in Phil Hughes, an ace in Joba Chamberlain, and a good second starter in Ian Kennedy. Simply saying that each of these players are talented, that the value is fair, that they are good now and better in the future, that perhaps the criticisms of them are unfounded, is to ignore what will ultimately matter. What matters is what they will likely become and what this is worth to the Yankees roster.
Let’s start with Pineda. More specifically, let’s consider the best case scenario, in all likelihood, for Michael Pineda’s future with this club. Remember, this is a long term evaluation. Of course one would hope for great things from Pineda come next season. But he is 22 years old. What really matters is what he does for this team in three or four or five years, with CC entering his mid-30s, and exiting them, with Pineda maturing and entering his prime years and potentially signing a massive extension with this team, with his hopefully developing into the Yankees top starter by the age of 26 or 27. How valuable is this? Over the past three seasons, the top-10 starting pitchers in Major League Baseball by fWAR have averaged 6.2 wins above replacement per season. This is a reasonable approximation. At their best, a starter could be worth up to 8 WAR, but these seasons are exceedingly rare. A 5-7 WAR season, consistently, is generally the standard by which true aces are measured.
What, then, of Montero’s best case? While Pineda is a starting pitcher with top of the rotation stuff and a fairly certain best-outcome, there is a little more involved with projecting a player like Jesus Montero. A 70-bat, 70-power player if he actualizes, Montero should be able to hit .300+ with 30+ home runs in a given season at the big league level. The most optimistic of projections might see Montero developing a better eye at the plate and becoming a Miguel Cabrera type – a batting title king, a guy who can hit between 30 and 40 home runs a season, and who can walk 15% of the time. Perhaps a more reasonable top projection for Montero would be some combination of Albert Pujol’s line last season and Miguel Cabrera’s line last season. Pujols hit 37 home runs to Cabrera’s 30, but he also hit .299 and walked only 9.4% of the time. Cabrera was a 7.3 fWAR player last season, Pujols a 5.1 fWAR player last season. Those two numbers happen to average to 6.2 fWAR. A useful but ultimately meaningless coincidence. The point stands, though. Montero’s upside, should he actualize his talent, is similar to that of Pineda on value. A first baseman with 70+-hit and 70+-power is a 5-7 win type of a talent. So is a number one starter.
There is a bit more to it than that, though. If Jesus Montero is a first baseman, that is his upside. If he is a catcher, his upside is of course greater, but it is highly unlikely he will stick at the position and has long sense become a useless endeavor to dream of Mike Piazza. If he is a DH, though, there has to be further adjustment. A first baseman will generally, over a full season, suffer a positional adjustment of fWAR around -10 or -11 runs per year. A DH will usually suffer a hit of about -15 or -16 runs per year. This is half a win’s difference. Beyond that, having a full-time DH provides less flexibility and having both the first and DH spots clogged up is a drag on potential acquisitions of value. In the long run, this could have been a problem for Montero in New York and diminishes, at least to some degree, the loss of a player of his caliber. This point has been made on many occasions in regard to the age of some of the Yankees offensive talent, particularly Alex Rodriguez, who could end up DH’ing down the road. While Mark Teixeira’s contract will expire in five seasons, and Montero will be only 27, it would surprise me to see a player of his caliber and with no professional experience at the position, moved at such a late date. Could a transition happen earlier? Sure. But there’s also no guarantee of satisfactory defensive play. The positional limitations, especially in New York, probably drop a half win or more from Montero’s prime-level ceiling.
What about the question of safety in projection? On talent, one might argue these players are reasonably close to each other in safety. Pineda has proved more at the big league level but he is a pitcher. Pitchers do tend to actualize high-level talent more often, but there is also a much greater long-term risk of injury. Both starting pitchers and big, power-hitting DH/1B types have some tendency to flame out in the early-30s, but most players who hit or pitch at the level of a Montero or Pineda at the age of 22 reach their ceilings relatively early and, in the case of the great ones, sustain their ceiling for a decade or more. I think Pineda is closer to taking that next step, making that impact, and reaching his ceiling at a young age. I think Montero, by virtue of being a position player, has an inherent advantage in the health department. It’s essentially a wash.
So, when examining simply best case scenarios, it is entirely true that these two talents are very similar in value. I agree with the consensus in this narrow case. Both have the potential to be 5-7 fWAR talents at their peaks. Both are positioned for quick ascents and long primes. Both have their potential scary spots, but neither is anything but a good bet to become the player we think they can (I’ll discuss this a bit later, at least in the case of Pineda). Unfortunately, though, I think this is where most analysis is stopping and I‘m not sure we’re getting the full picture. Yes, if both players pan out, that’s that and the risk associated is similar. If they don’t, it gets more complicated. If we consider more mid-level projections, it gets more complicated. I agree with Cashman that, all things held equal, Pineda becoming a top starter would likely make this deal a success no matter what Montero becomes. I differ with Cashman’s simplification – I think the secondary pieces, especially Campos, have a chance to change how this deal is viewed.
Where I differ most with Brian Cashman’s (public) position, though, is on whether Pineda must become a number one starter to make this deal worthwhile for the Yankees. I’ve seen this said on several occasions and I think it merits a thorough dismissal.
Firstly this pre-supposes Jesus Montero’s reaching the above mentioned 5-7 fWAR ceiling. Let me be the first to say there is a good chance Jesus Montero WILL reach this ceiling. My opinion on that will not change with Montero in Seattle. It is far from guaranteed, however. Over the past two seasons in AAA, Montero has averaged (per 162 games) 27 home runs, 98 RBI, he’s hit .289 and produced an .843 OPS. Montero is still young, but not substantially younger than his levels best players anymore. He’s playing against far less talented competition anyhow. I’ve been the first to dismiss his up-and-down minor league numbers since early 2010. He was clearly not motivated, he had stretches of dominance, and the scouting reports are just too good. Furthermore, he absolutely tore apart big league pitching in the final month of last season. But one small sample size does not invalidate a very large one. Montero is not yet the player we think he can become, there are issues of motivation, there are weaknesses in his game (particularly his plate discipline) and if he becomes a .290 hitter with 25 home runs power and poor plate discipline, if he becomes this as a DH, he’s not a 5-7 fWAR player. He’s Billy Butler. He’s a 2-3 win guy, a valuable player but not a superstar. Let me reiterate: I don’t think this is Jesus Montero’s future. I think he is a special player. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he becomes that kind of a player.
And what if Pineda fails to reach his ceiling? What if he is just good, but not great? The same type of drop in value does not occur. In fact, in limited innings last season, Michael Pineda was a 3.4 fWAR pitcher. Pro-rate that to 210 innings, and he’s a 4.2 win pitcher. He’s already a good second starter and the fact is that a good second starter is much more valuable than an .840 or .850 OPS DH or first baseman. If both players were to become good, but not quite superstars, the advantage shifts significantly in favor of Michael Pineda. He’s already at a level more valuable than a reasonable mid-level projection for Jesus Montero. He’s a second starter. If Montero is a step down offensively, because of the position he plays and because of his weakness as an impatient hitter, Pineda becomes the much more valuable commodity. Even if Montero is to become that superstar, like I think he will, Pineda’s second starter status would not be a death sentence to the wisdom of the deal. A 4.5 fWAR second starer is not so much worse than a those 5-7 WAR guys. If Montero is more last years Pujol’s than last year’s Cabrera, if he hits say .310 with 30-35 homers and a .370 OBP as a DH, there is still a decent chance that a second starter Pineda could be as valuable if not more so.
The point I’m trying to make here is that, in defining success and failure, one must look primarily to value and fit. In this respect, Cashman pulled off a coup. If the conventional wisdom holds, then the conventional wisdom holds. If both players continue to progress into superstars, then they are similarly valuable. I believe Pineda would be the better fit in this case, but Larry Koestler makes an excellent case at RAB today for Montero. It is when we consider more reasonable mid-level projections that the edge is clearly Pineda’s. A second starter is more valuable than a good DH, nearly as valuable as a great DH, and that even holds over if Montero plays first. Pineda is closer to becoming this second starter than Montero is to becoming this good or great DH. In the near worst case scenario that neither works out as intended, Pineda also has much more of a fall back. He could be a high-90s slinging, bat missing reliever or closer. Montero? There isn’t much of a place to go if you can’t cut it as a full time first baseman and you don’t have much of a glove. This is really what makes the deal such an impressive move on Brian Cashman’s part. It’s difficult to imagine this deal going poorly, easy to imagine it going very well. That’s without mentioning, except in passing, the swap of Campos for Noesi, one that is hard not to like.
Optimism is generally a positive attribute in a fan base, but even such a justified optimism as fans have expressed towards the future of Michael Pinda can be a recipe for false pessimistic disappointment. I am not saying, of course, that the expectations and hopes are themselves over the line, but that a failure to completely meet expectations, should this occur, would not be equivalent to a failure in trade as Brian Cashman might suggest, at least from the perspective of the Yankees. If Jesus Montero does not become a superstar, then Mariners fans can reasonably be expected to be disappointed with this deal. But what if Pineda maintains his current level of play in the long run or improves ever so slightly? A second starter is a damn valuable asset and not something that can be dismissed, even if it’s not quite so sexy as a superstar DH or first baseman. Look at Pineda’s top two comps through the age of 22. Roy Halladay and Josh Beckett. I’d rather he be Halladay, but Beckett would not be a disappointment so much as a reasonable actualization of the talent Pineda presents. The thing about top young pitchers is that sometimes they bust really hard, but usually they don’t. When they don’t there is a fine line between those that reach their ceilings and those who don’t quite do it. A guy like Montero is unlikely to fall into much of a gray area. He needs to hit a ton and he probably will. If he does, he’s a superstar. If not, it’ll be tough for him to contribute the kind of value you’d want. A guy like Pineda? There’s a ton of gray. What exactly will determine whether Pineda falls into that gray area of rises above on his way to Cy Young awards and hundred million dollar contracts? This is the second essential question Bowden’s tweet raises. I’ll tell you something – it’s not necessarily the change-up. At all.
Michael Pineda’s change-up is a pretty big deal right now. Ask any talent evaluator and they’ll tell you that it’s not quite where it should be. It’s not a great third pitch. He only has two others, and so that has to concern some people. Two-pitch pitchers are scary and change-ups are notoriously hard to develop. As Andrew Marchand of ESPN said, summing up a minority concern in the Yankee universe:
That is what scouts think about the Yankees’ new No. 2. Michael Pineda’s fastball and slider are devastating, but Pineda still needs to refine the change-up. So get ready to hear a lot about Pineda’s change next month in spring training. One scout said it is basic refining pitches. He is only 23, after all.
This is why the Yankees are going to have to manage the expectations on Pineda. He is less proven than Phil Hughes. Like Hughes, he is still developing, but there is no telling what he is exactly. He does have better stuff than Hughes. Still, you could make an argument that Hughes will have a better year than Pineda in 2012.
Overreaction? I think so. But that concern has permeated the Yankee world over the past few days and it has become almost common knowledge that Pineda’s change-up is bad. It has become common knowledge that Pineda needs to improve his change-up to take that next step. Cashman said it quite clearly. Pineda improves the change-up, or this deal was a mistake. That has to scare Yankees fans who have seen countless prospects fail to improve their change-ups, fail to take that next step, and ultimately fail to succeed in pinstripes. I’m not so sure this is the case, though. Let’s compared Michael Pineda’s change-up to that of another big, hard throwing starting pitcher, a guy who throws a fastball, slider, or change 94% of the time.
Pineda: 0.28 wins above replacement per 100 change-ups in 2011.
Pitcher B: 0.28 wins above replacement per 100 change-ups in 2011.
Pitcher B is CC Sabathia.
The point is that the histrionics vis-a-vi Pineda’s change-up need to be toned-down. If CC Sabathia can be CC Sabathia on a fastball and slider, Michael Pineda can be Michael Pineda. He already is. A 9.11 K rate, a 2.82 BB rate, a 3.42 FIP. He’s already a number two starter. Could his change-up use some work? Sure. But a solid change-up is often enough when you throw in the mid-90s and miss a ton of bats and barely ever walk anyone. The same can be said for the histrionics about his second half splits, about his home-road splits, about his right-handedness, and so on. I’d be more concerned about his fly-ball tendency, his ability to take the next step in commanding his pitches, than with his development of a decent third pitch into a really good one. He doesn’t need three plus pitches.
And yet, again, the gray area comes up. If Pineda’s change-up is not such a big problem, if he’s already a fairly polished and well put together young pitcher, where exactly is the improvement going to come from? It’s pretty simple. He’s going to have to harness his command, he’s going to have to keep more balls on the ground, he’s going to have to keep missing bats and go deeper into games. Developing a change-up works or it doesn’t. Improving on the pitcher you already are is a more complicated and at times understated process. This, though, is what we have to hope for from Pineda. We see two young guys, two talented young guys, swapped for each other and we assume these similarities, we call the trade even, we look at their ceilings and relative risks, and sometimes we don’t dig deeper. But if we do, the two players look quite different. Pineda is a safer bet to be a valuable asset, he looks like a future ace, but maybe he just never becomes one. Montero, on the other hand, is unlikely to fall into a gray area. He IS the riskier of the two. He has to play up, improve greatly, to be the superstar he can be. But he has that talent.
We are looking at two players, one with a clear and more broad base for value, and calling him the unpolished one, the riskier one. This is, I believe, wrong. And yet in acknowledging the broad set of potential outcomes that advantage the Yankees, we also must acknowledge that some of these outcomes wont look as great on the surface, that sexy DH stats don’t necessarily out-value good second starter production, but that they can often grab more attention. I think we could be looking at this deal wrong, just a little bit wrong, if we expect and demand full actualization, and evaluate the trade from that perspective. Hope is one thing. Expectations are another. In expecting not just a good pitcher, but demanding a superstar, we may very well be setting ourselves up for disappointment and ignoring what makes this trade such a good one. In our quest to nit-pick at Pineda’s resume and cast this move as a long term risk for the Yankees, we are doing the same.
There doesn’t appear to be a magic formula for Pineda’s success. With Montero, we had one. Seattle has one. If he can learn to take more pitches and be more selective everything else should fall into place. If he can motivate himself to improve those areas of his game, the raw talent will almost undeniably shine through. He could be Miguel Cabrera, or Edgar Martinez. Risk or not, there is a clear path forward. With Pineda, we are presented with a pitcher who is already immensely valuable. We are presented with one of the most talented pitchers in the league and one who is very polished at 22 going on 23. But these kind of pitchers don’t always get exponentially better. They don’t always have to. I think Pineda is underrated and I think, at the same time, expectations and demands are a bit too high.
So I guess, ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that Brian Cashman made a good move for the right reasons. He understands that this is a long term deal and I think that’s what we need to discuss more than anything. That’s what will determine success and failure here. And yet I think, on some level, he’s wrong. Michael Pineda is a very good pitcher already. He’s a more valuable piece than Montero, quite possibly. He’s a better fit. He might not turn into an ace, but so what? This was a good deal exactly because he’s more polished, he’s less risky, because there is a broader base of potential value. In the long run, he’s the guy we want to bet on. The risk is less, the ceiling as high, the potential projections more valuable, and yet the ability to evaluate how far we’ve come more nuanced. We should expect him to maintain and improve on this level of play and in doing so likely provide a greater value than Montero. We should hope he’s the next CC Sabathia or Roy Halladay. But we need to keep our eyes open and expectations in check. There is a good chance Michael Pineda is going to be one of the best pitchers in baseball and this is a trade about the long run, but what really makes this a great trade, what makes this a steal for the Yankees on paper, is the broad potential for value. Even if Pineda cannot become everything he can become, he’s still going to be valuable, potentially more valuable than Montero, and far from a disappointment.
In short, rarely do you find pitchers with this talent and this polished and it because of that fact that Brian Cashman’s deal looks so good in the long run. He was right to make the trade, and right to make clear a set of goals that define the success or failure of this trade. In doing so, though, I think he was too harsh. We should appreciate Pineda for what he is and can be, instead of making up excuses now for why our unwarranted and unneeded demands may not be met down the road. The difference between what Pineda is now and what he needs to become to make this trade a win is, I believe, not as large that the corresponding gap on the other side.
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