Resist the Urge

Young starters are the game's most prized commodity—but contenders still find it hard to baby budding stars
June 26, 2011

There are nights when it's easy to imagine the Mariners riding Michael Pineda—the 6'7", 260-pound Dominican man-child with the triple-digit heater and hellacious slider—all the way to October. Last Friday was one of those nights. After holding the Phillies hitless for 52/3 innings at Safeco Field, the 22-year-old rookie righthander found himself in a two-out, bases-loaded predicament in the sixth. Pineda fired three straight fastballs at Placido Polanco, the last a rising, 98-mph missile that blew past the third baseman to end the inning. It was the exclamation point to an overpowering performance that showed why, with Pineda (7--4, 2.64 ERA through Sunday) and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez atop the rotation, Seattle is a threat to dethrone the Rangers in the AL West.

But if they are looking out for the future of their franchise, the Mariners won't allow Pineda to throw a single meaningful pitch down the stretch this season—even if it means losing a shot at the franchise's first postseason berth in 10 years. For Seattle the phenom conundrum looms: hold back a precocious youngster and protect the future, or unleash him and try to win now? It's a no-brainer for some teams—already the last-place Orioles are skipping 23-year-old lefthander Zach Britton's starts in an effort to cap his innings—but for contenders the issue is more complicated.

Take last year's Padres, who indicated in spring training that young righthander Mat Latos, who had logged a combined 123 innings in the minors and majors in 2009, would be capped at around 150 innings in his first full big league year. But San Diego emerged as a surprise contender, and the team pushed its rookie ace: Latos, now 23, went 14--10 with a 2.92 ERA in 1842/3 innings, by far the most he'd thrown as a professional. But he wilted in September, the Padres fell short of the postseason—and Latos may still be feeling the effects of his heavy workload. He began the season on the DL with a sore shoulder, and through Sunday he was 4--8 with a 4.06 ERA, with a lower strikeout rate and a higher walk rate and WHIP than he had in 2010.

Latos is one of five pitchers under 25 whose workload in 2010 jumped by more than 40 innings from their previous career highs in 2009. Three of those hurlers (Latos, the Braves' Brandon Beachy and the Marlins' Alex Sanabia) have been on the DL this season, and a fourth (the Blue Jays' Brett Cecil) is in Triple A, having lost two mph off his fastball. Only the Giants' Madison Bumgarner (3--8, 3.21) has not seen a noticeable decline in his performance. Bumgarner, however, is the exception; the rest are cautionary tales for teams such as the Mariners, Rays (Jeremy Hellickson), Rockies (Jhoulys Chacin), Indians (Carlos Carrasco) and Diamondbacks (Josh Collmenter)—postseason hopefuls who are leaning on callow starters. "This is more art than science," says one AL executive. "When you're a contender and your young pitcher could be a difference maker for you, you start asking, Is 180 innings so much worse than 170? Certainly it depends on the pitcher and the body type—the risk is lower for guys with the bigger build. Then again, the Giants pushed Tim Lincecum, and he's never been on the disabled list."

Pineda, who did not pitch more than 140 innings in any of his five seasons as a minor leaguer, had already thrown 882/3 through Sunday, putting him on pace for more than 200. The Mariners say that they will settle on an innings limit for Pineda by the All-Star break. But as history shows, the thrill of a pennant race can blow up the best-intentioned plans.

On nights that he dominates a first-place lineup, as he did last week when he outpitched Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt, it's easy to forget that Pineda, who lives with bullpen coach Jaime Navarro and rides to the ballpark with him, is still just a baby. It's up to the Mariners to ensure that there will be dazzling nights like that for years to come.

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THE NUMBERS

Fallen Angel

Four years ago he was the AL's strikeout king. Last week Scott Kazmir, still just 27, was released by the Angels after being torched for 30 runs in 151/3 innings in Triple A. As a prospect, Kazmir was the centerpiece of one of the most ridiculed deadline deals ever, the 2004 trade that sent the lefty—then the jewel of the Mets' system—to Tampa Bay for starter Victor Zambrano, who was a flameout in New York. Kazmir was a two-time All-Star with the Rays, but in '09 the Angels made a trade that may be worse: They sent infielder Sean Rodriguez and pitcher Alexander Torres to the Rays for Kazmir, who then went 11--17 with a 5.31 ERA as an Angel. Kazmir will most likely get a chance with another team, but his disappearing velocity and loss of command after an '08 elbow injury are strong indications that his big league career is over.

FLORIDA'S FOLD

A Fish Story Gone Bad

Less than four weeks ago, the Marlins were one of the best and most surprising stories in the game. They were 29--19, one game behind the Phillies in the NL East, and were coming off a three-game sweep of the Giants on the road. To celebrate, team president David Samson and G.M. Larry Beinfest bought 200 In-N-Out burgers for the team's charter flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But last weekend, after a 3--20 slide since that sweep, the team's mood was considerably darker. On Sunday morning manager Edwin Rodriguez resigned; the club had already sacrificed its hitting coach, John Mallee, and fallen into last place. Bench coach Brandon Hyde took over as skipper for a day—and watched the team lose its 10th straight game, 2--1 to the Rays.

Florida is hoping for the same managerial-change magic it enjoyed eight years ago, when Jack McKeon (right) replaced Jeff Torborg in May and guided the team to a 75--49 finish and an improbable world championship. McKeon, now 80, was a special assistant to owner Jeffrey Loria, and on Monday he was tabbed to replace Rodriguez. McKeon made a splash by immediately benching struggling shortstop Hanley Ramirez. But there will be no miracles if ace Josh Johnson (out since mid-May with shoulder inflammation) and Ramirez (hitting .204 with four home runs through Sunday) don't make second-half comebacks. The lack of production from their two All-Stars was the problem in Florida, not Rodriguez.

PHOTOPhotograph by ROD MARLOSING FOR WINNING Limiting Britton (inset) is easy for the woeful O's, but Seattle may need Pineda for a playoff push. PHOTOMITCH STRINGER/US PRESSWIRE (BRITTON)[See caption above] PHOTOBEN MARGOT/AP (KAZMIR) PHOTOJIM ROGASH/GETTY IMAGES (HELLICKSON)FRAGILE! Tampa Bay's rotation depth could help Hellickson (left) avoid a punishing workload such as the one that seems to be catching up with Latos. PHOTOROSS F. DETTMAN/SPORTSCHROME (MCKEON)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)