In a New York minute, Yankees become clear AL East favorites
The Mariners agreed to trade Michael Pineda to New York for Jesus Montero
A swap of two such talented players so early in their careers is a rare thing
The Yankees also signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda, solidifying their rotation
If you blinked, you missed it, but in a quick flurry of action after a largely inactive offseason, the Yankees landed right-handers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda on Friday night, vastly improving their rotation and instantly becoming heavy favorites to repeat as American League East champions. The four-player trade that netted Pineda, arguably the best rookie starter in baseball last season, was enough of a bombshell given that the Yankees sent Jesus Montero, one of the game's top hitting prospects, to the Mariners in the deal, which also netted them the Mariners fifth-best prospect, teenage righty Jose Campos. In Kurdoa, however, the Yankees landed the man I identified in mid-December as the top free agent pitcher remaining on the market and did so with a simple one-year, $10 million contract.
Pineda and Kuroda slot into the second and third spots in the Yankees rotation behind ace CC Sabathia. That pushes sophomore Ivan Nova, who erroneously out-polled Pineda in the AL Rookie of the Year voting last year, to the fourth spot, and sets up a three-way battle for the fifth spot among what had appeared to be the bulk of the Yankee rotation just hours earlier: A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia. Sabathia, Pineda, Kuroda, and Nova, plus one does not add up to the best rotation in the AL East. That distinction still belongs to the Rays, who will add the game's top pitching prospect, Matt Moore, to what was already the league's best starting staff in 2011. But given how much more productive New York's lineup is than Tampa Bay's, and how far behind those two teams the Red Sox are in terms of their rotation outlook for the coming season, an outlook that got bleaker with Kuroda signing with their rival (note the "best fit" in the linked article above), the Yankees stack up as the clear favorite in the division.
The impact of the Pineda/Montero swap will extend far beyond the coming season, however. The Yankees will have control of Pineda, who will turn 23 on Wednesday, for the next five seasons, while the Mariners will own Montero's rights for the next six, and these are two of the top young players in the game. Pineda, who was an All-Star as a rookie, is a solid 6-foot-7 stud with mid-90s heat that can spike up to 98 miles per hour and a devastating slider. Both of those pitches are legitimate major league out-pitches, and scouts believe that if he can improve his changeup he could be one of the few legitimate aces in the game. As a rookie last year, he was second in the AL in strikeouts per nine inning at 9.1, besting MVP Justin Verlander in that category, ranked eighth in WHIP at 1.10, and was 14th in strikeout-to-walk ratio with a solid 3.15 ratio. Those peripherals speak louder than his 3.74 ERA and 9-10 record for the lowest-scoring team in baseball.
Also encouraging is the fact that the Mariners were careful with Pineda last year. He only once threw as many as 110 pitches in a game, never more, and was limited to 171 innings, enough to put him on the Verducci Effect list of pitchers under 25 who saw their innings increase by 30 or more from last season, but just barely, as it was just 31 1/3 innings more than he had thrown in the minors in 2010. That sets the Yankees up for roughly 200 innings of Pineda in 2012 and raises their hopes of having the lefty/righty one-two punch of Pineda and Sabathia, who's contract was extended a year at the end of October, atop their rotation through at least 2016.
Montero, meanwhile, projects every bit as well at the plate as Pineda does on the mound. A career .308/.366/.501 hitter in the minors, Montero hit .328/.406/.590 in his first 69 major league plate appearances last September and went 2-for-2 in the postseason to boot. Just 22, he was rated the third-best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2011 season and is expected to hit for both average and power and has an approach that could lead to better on base numbers as he matures. He's a legitimate heart-of-the order hitter who is ready to bat in the middle of the Mariners' lineup right now. The only question is what he'll do in the other half of the inning.
Ostensibly a catcher, Montero was made available by the Yankees, who had previously tried to trade him to Seattle for Cliff Lee at the 2010 trade deadline, because they had absolutely no faith in his abilities behind the plate. Montero started 17 games for the Yankees in September, all but three of them at designated hitter, and of the three games he did catch, he was replaced mid-game in two of them. Prior to the trade, he was slotted in as the Yankees' opening-day DH this year with Francisco Cervelli still expected to back up Russell Martin behind the plate. Montero has a strong arm, but he's not particularly athletic and has trouble getting in position to make throws or block pitches. His lack of athleticism makes a move to a corner outfield position questionable as well, which limits his alternatives to first base, and with the Yankees, who have Mark Teixeira signed through 2016, that left him without a position.
The Mariners may yet try to make a legitimate catcher out of Montero, particularly given that they, too, have first base covered (by Justin Smoak, the Rangers prospect they opted to acquire instead of Montero when flipping Lee at the 2010 deadline), but ultimately, his position is an afterthought in Seattle. Montero was squeezed in New York, where the Yankees also need to give DH at-bats to their aging and oft-injured veterans. Meanwhile, the Mariners offense has been so bad over the last four years (3.67 runs per game over that span) that they'd find a place to play a man with two wooden legs if he could hit .300 with 30 homers every year, as Montero very well could. Montero isn't an ideal player to build a team around, but he's a perfect bat to build a lineup around, and may already be the team's best hitter.
A trade of two such talented players so early in their careers is a rare thing. The most recent example that comes to mind is the November 2007 swap in which the newly re-christened Rays sent outfielder Delmon Young and others to the Twins for a package built around righty Matt Garza. Young was the overall No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft and the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year award in '07. Like Montero, he was 22 and rated the third-best prospect in all of baseball the previous winter. Garza was a later first-round pick in 2005 who had posted a 3.69 ERA in 15 starts and one relief outing as a 23-year-old in 2007. The similarities to Montero and Pineda are significant, but Montero is a better hitting prospect than Young (another player with no defensive value), and while Garza had a deeper repertoire, Pineda's stuff is better than Garza's, giving him a better projection.
Then there's the matter of the other half of the trade. The Mariners also received righty Hector Noesi, a soon-to-be-25-year-old flyball pitcher who spent most of his rookie season of 2011 in the Yankees bullpen but could be a back-of-the-rotation starter for the Mariners in 2012 and beyond, while the Yankees picked up Venezuelan righty Jose Campos, who dominated the Low-A Northwest League as an 18-year-old in 2011, his first season in the U.S. The 6-4 Campos, who throws in the low-to-mid 90s with outstanding command, was generally considered the Mariners' fifth-best prospect, a kid with enormous potential but much to do before harnessing it and bringing it to the majors. A lot can go wrong for a kid like Campos between posting a 6.54 K/BB ratio in 14 Low-A starts and the major leagues, but the potential is there for the Yankees to have received two impact arms in this trade, and Campos will still be just 24 when Pineda reaches free agency.
For now, Campos appears to give the edge in this deal to the Yankees, but both teams got the best return possible for their young studs. The Mariners' willingness to part with Pineda illustrates just how desperate they were for a bat, and they got the best value possible in six team controlled years of Montero, the best young hitter available to be had. The Yankees needed to shore up their rotation and maximize Montero's trade value, and they did just that, landing five team-controlled years of a young stud who has already had significant success at the major league level.
In the short term, the Yankees, who seem to be perpetually one pitcher short of a pennant save for the years in which they actually win one, just added arguably the two best pitchers available. You won't see a better pitcher than Pineda traded between now and April, and Kuroda (last three years: 3.35 ERA, 115 ERA+, 1.18 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 3.36 K/BB) was not only the best free agent available, but signed a club-friendly one-year deal that made no effort to wring an extended commitment out of baseball's richest team. Yankee fans can and will nitpick their teams' new pitchers to death and grouse about the loss of arguably the best pure hitting prospect to come their way in decades, but few teams have ever gotten this much better this quickly.