For two years, the Yankees could only wonder what they had in Michael Pineda. They had acquired him in a trade with the Mariners before the 2012 season but had yet to see him pitch in pinstripes, as shoulder injuries sidelined the young Dominican righthander who had shown so much promise with Seattle in his All-Star rookie season of 2011.
Early this season, it appeared that what the Yankees had was exactly what they hoped they were getting when they traded highly-touted prospect Jesus Montero: a star. In his first three starts for New York, Pineda allowed just two runs in 18 innings while striking out 15 batters against only three walks. More importantly, he seemed to be exactly the kind of reliable starter the Yankees needed after losing Ol' Reliable himself, Andy Pettitte, to retirement last offseason.
Pineda's breakout this month had been one of the young season's most encouraging storylines, especially for a New York team that just this week learned it would be without starter Ivan Nova, who has joined the plethora of pitchers needing Tommy John surgery, for the remainder of the year.
Now, however, after Pineda was ejected from Wednesday night's game against the Red Sox for using pine tar after being accused of possessing what was almost certainly the exact same substance while beating Boston at Yankee Stadium two weeks ago, New York must once again wonder exactly they have in the young hurler. Is he the 6-foot-7 ace-in-training with the fearsome fastball and darting slider who had, somewhat miraculously, emerged as one of the American League's best pitchers so far while providing hope that at 25 he can anchor the team's rotation for years to come? Or is his surprising success solely the product of illegal behavior, and someone who will be exposed now that his not-so-secret weapon has been too?
[mlbvideo id="32324451" width="610" height="400" /]
Pineda, who said Wednesday he applied the pine tar despite knowing it was illegal after a first inning in which he gave up two runs because he didn't "feel the ball good and didn't want to hit anybody," is facing a suspension of yet-to-be-determined length. It's also unclear if Pineda has used pine tar in his two starts against teams other than Boston. He likely wouldn't have needed it in his first start, on April 6 in Toronto, because that game was played in a dome. After his next outing against the Red Sox, he faced the Cubs on a cool night in the Bronx on April 16 and Chicago manager Rick Renteria said his team would be keeping an eye out for a similar problem. There is no evidence Pineda used pine tar or any other substance in that game, in which he pitched six shutout innings. In light of what happened Wednesday, however, it is reasonable to wonder whether or not Pineda's hands were as clean as his stat line.
After Wednesday's game much of the talk was on why Pineda would so blatantly break an obvious rule against the same team he did it to so recently. "Our awareness was heightened," said Boston manager John Farrell, acknowledging his team was on the lookout for further signs of foreign substances on Pineda. As for whether or not the Yankees would retaliate against the Red Sox, an admittedly embarrassed New York general manager Brian Cashman said, "I would want our manager to do what John Farrell did."
The question now is what will Major League Baseball do. Joe Torre, the executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office, spoke to the Yankees about Pineda's earlier incident already and with that kind of warning it seems that even an eight-game suspension, which Rays reliever Joel Peralta received when he was ejected for pine tar in 2012, might be charitable.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi attempted to downplay Wednesday night's incident and whatever its ramifications may be by calling it "a little bump in the road," but it's one his team can't really afford. New York is still in first place even after Wednesday night's 5-1 loss, but without Nova for the rest of the year, Pineda for likely two starts and CC Sabathia having been knocked around for a 5.09 ERA, that lead doesn't figure to last for long.