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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