Coming into the season, the general consensus seemed to be that Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Michael Pineda would start the year with the AAA Tacoma Rainiers. Pineda had a breakout year in the minors in 2010 that saw him rocket up prospect lists, but a need to develop his changeup and a desire to limit both his workload and service time made at least a temporary return to Tacoma seem like the more likely decision. The organization had other ideas, and after rumblings all spring long that Pineda was competing for the fifth spot in the rotation the 22 year old right hander broke camp with the team and made his big league debut on April 5th against the Texas Rangers.
What's happened since then isn't much of a secret; put bluntly, Pineda has come up and pitched like one of the best starters in baseball. By traditional measures Pineda has been lights-out, posting a 5-2 record with an ERA of 2.45-fifth best in the AL-and striking out 52 over 51.1 innings pitched. Looking at the more advanced numbers is equally encouraging, as they give little reason to suspect that Pineda's results aren't largely sustainable. He's stranded more runners than one might expect and eventually more of the fly balls he's been giving up are going to leave the yard, but an xFIP (which takes into account these, amongst other, factors) of 3.17 is good enough for tenth in the league. Pineda has been nothing short of dominant, and that dominance is a major reason the Mariners still have hope of meaningful baseball come the summer months.
And therein lies the problem. Pineda was a completely unknown quantity as a major league pitcher coming into the year, and he's exceeded expectations by such a margin that it's going to be increasingly difficult for the team to send him to Tacoma in an effort to save a year of club control or to shut him down in an attempt to keep his workload in check. Pineda threw a total of 139.1 innings between AA Jackson and AAA Tacoma last season, a career high; he's already more than a third of the way to that total this season, four months still to play. The team can skip a start here or there, but if the plan is to limit him to somewhere in the neighborhood of 175-200 innings including spring training it might take a bit more than that.
It's still far too early to say that this is going to become a serious concern for the organization. As much room as there is for optimism, it's unlikely that Pineda will be able to continue putting up performances this dominant all season. The potential is there, as clearly illustrated by his stuff and his numbers, but as the league sees more of him teams will adjust their approach and some struggles are to be expected along the way. Even if all of this is for real, if the Mariners fall out of contention (and despite being just 4.5 games out of first place, the team is still six games below .500) it then becomes far easier to shut Pineda down than it would be during the middle of a pennant race.
But for now, it's something to keep in mind. The team was not hesitant in ending Pineda's season early last year, but it's a bit trickier to do that at the major league level than it is at AAA. The Mariners have been consistent in saying that Pineda's workload would be monitored and that he would be handled very carefully, and while there's no reason to believe they've abandoned that approach it's not difficult to foresee complaints from large segments of the fanbase should he be removed from the rotation down the stretch, especially if the team have a shot at the playoffs. It could give Jack Zduriencik and Co. a very tricky situation to handle. But if the toughest decision the front office has to face all season is whether to keep running their dominant young pitcher out to the mound in an effort to keep the club in a pennant race or shutting him down in order to preserve his health, I'm sure that Zduriencik and his team-as well as most Mariners fans-would take it in a heartbeat.