Jack Cust arrived at camp after the Seattle Mariners signed him during the offseason. Cust is paid to hit and went to Arizona to begin unkinking his swing. When he settled in for his first at-bat of an intersquad game, Mariners rookie Michael Pineda, a behemoth who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 260 pounds, loomed on the mound.
"First at-bat of the spring you're just usually looking for something straight over the plate," Cust said. "Not an 86-mph slider, then a 90-mph change-up, then a 98-mph fastball. At that point, I knew he was probably going to be pretty good."
Cust's grazing swing popped up the final pitch. Pineda used that three-pitch combination during the rest of the spring to snatch the final spot in the Mariners' rotation. When he left Peoria for opening day in Oakland, Pineda was six years removed from being a third baseman on sugar cane-framed fields just outside Yaguate in the southwestern portion of the Dominican Republic.
Through the first two months of the season, Pineda has dominated the American League with a straight-ahead bruising style. Long limbed with stocked hind quarters, Pineda used fastball after fastball to get off to a fast start. He ranks in the top 10 in the American League in wins (6, ninth), ERA (2.33, fourth), WHIP (0.966, seventh), hits per nine innings (6.4, fifth), strikeouts (76, ninth) and K/9 (8.85, second). He is the early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year and has numbers that put him in the Cy Young race.
CORCORAN: Pineda easily in front for AL ROY
"He's special," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He attacks you with a fastball in a fastball count. Not many people can do that anymore in the American League."
Standing 6-foot-2 by age 15, Pineda figured his soft hands and growing power would give him a shot at the majors. At the time, he was a shortstop and third baseman with a strong arm but leaden feet and limited range.
Cleveland Indians scouts lined Pineda up to throw a bullpen session. Afterward, there were two conclusions: He would be a pitcher and he was a hard worker. However, Pineda did not want to pitch. He lamented the change with his mother. In her ear was Luis A. Rivera, a baseball adviser in Santo Domingo who made it to Class A ball in the Mariners organization in 1978. A short time on the mound convinced Pineda to make the position change.
"After two months of pitching, I say, 'It's good,'" Pineda said in still developing English. "I have a chance for pitching."
Mariners scouts Patrick Guerrero and Franklin Taveras agreed. Pineda signed for a $35,000 bonus on Dec. 12, 2005, under the watch of then-general manager Bill Bavasi. The change settled, Pineda began work on a slider and change-up. He came to Arizona in 2007 with his heavy fastball and incomplete English. There he met Jaime Navarro, then a 40-year-old pitching coach for Class A Wisconsin. Navarro, who pitched 12 seasons in the major leagues, instantly gained Pineda's attention. That's because he was one of the few people the righthander understood.
They departed Arizona together for Appleton, Wisc. Navarro convinced Pineda English was crucial, despite many Latin players fearing a perception of stupidity when speaking poorly. Pineda began daily stints reading the newspaper or a book and speaking English to his teammates.
"The first thing that impressed me was his arm," Navarro said. "The way he approached things, his work ethic. That made me see something in him that I didn't see from other kids."
Pineda spent the year shielded by the comfort of fatherly interaction with Navarro. Both progressed rapidly within the organization. By 2010, Pineda was in Double-A West Tennessee. The drawback was it meant his first separation from Navarro, who was moved to Triple-A Tacoma to be the pitching coach.
"He called me all the time," Navarro said. "I said, just be patient. Go down there and throw the ball well and don't worry. Before you know it, you'll be back here."
Two months later, Pineda joined Navarro in Tacoma, about 30 minutes south of Seattle.
"Hey, I'm back!" Pineda told him.
Pineda is becoming more like Felix Hernandez, though there is significant distance between them in their pitching -- and personal -- styles.
The outgoing Hernandez, who won last year's American League Cy Young award, recently sported blue sneakers and white uniform pants hastily rolled above the knee. He wore a yellow promotional T-shirt with the word "King" and a silhouette of himself as the I.
Pineda, bubbly and boyish, sits at his locker watching Hernandez's hi-jinks. He would be happy to take Hernandez's change-up and leave the mismatched wardrobe. The rookie's current change-up sits at the top of his palm, just south of the base of his three central fingers. It's often 90 mph. The speed differentiation isn't enough and he throws it just 5.7 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs.com.
Pineda is tinkering with a two-seamer that he's trying to modify because it has much of the same action as his four-seamer. Next is a sinker, but no cutter or split-finger yet.
"Too young," said Navarro, now the Mariners' bullpen coach. "He's got a lifetime to do that. But develop a sinker? It is going to make him a lot better than he is right now."
"He'll get to the point when he masters a third pitch, but the fastball/slider has been terrific right now," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "Again, he's just a young kid that's learning. I think all of us are aware what we have here."
Though a third jewel is yet to be acquired, his first two are plenty valuable already. Pineda's fastball and slider coupled with his repeated delivery stunned nearly everyone with the Mariners this spring. At his size his accuracy is striking. He is throwing strikes 68.8 percent of the time this season, delivering in a calm motion Pineda says came naturally to him. His four-seam fastball sizzles at an average of 96 mph and carries late life.
"The fastball is great, they're still missing it, but in July and August he needs to come with something better," Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo said.
Pineda's slider is his trump piece. He grabs a seam with his middle finger after lifting his index off the ball in its initial grip. A turn of his wrist buoyed by an upward snap of his thumb brings the darting action.
The rookie expected to be using these pitches in Seattle late last summer. The Mariners' season had progressed from toilet to sewer by September, but instead of bringing Pineda up, the organization shut him down. He wasn't happy.
The club told Navarro it wanted to limit the stress on Pineda's arm after he had pitched 139 1/3 innings, a jump of 92 innings over the 2009 season. He would get a shot next spring assuming he did the proper work over the winter. It was focusing on his future. Navarro relayed this to Pineda, who cooled.
"We told him, hey, if you come to spring training and do what you're supposed to do we'll give you every chance to make the club," Zduriencik said. "I think the rest speaks for itself. He came in, he did what he was supposed to do, and he opened everyone's eyes."
Pineda lives in a spare room in Navarro's house. "He asked, 'Do you mind if I live with you this year until I get to know Seattle and get a place for myself later in my career or in the season?'" Navarro said. "His whole career has been with me."
Postgame pow-wows between the two occur in Navarro's corner of the clubhouse. Pineda asks Navarro what he thinks after each outing. Navarro redirects the query to Pineda, who admitted after a struggle against the Yankees he was overhyped because of the opponent's name.
Seattle's clubhouse is a spunky palace of late since the Mariners (31-29) are exceeding expectations. Seattle's staff ERA was a major league-best 2.82 in May.
Pineda has taken the spot once occupied by Cliff Lee in the Seattle rotation as Hernandez's sidekick and has outpitched the Phillies lefthander this season. Lee will makes $21.5 million next year when his new contract kicks in. Pineda is debating which used car to buy on his $414,000 deal. He didn't fit in a Lexus.
It's suggested to Zduriencik he may want to start setting aside the company dollars now. He laughs.
"We'll deal with that when the time comes," he says.
Everything else is way ahead of schedule.