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March 14, 2011 at 4:44 PM

Mariners sources: Michael Pineda will win final rotation spot as long as he keeps pitching this way

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ADDITIONAL NOTE 4:55 p.m.: The Mariners just optioned RHP Edward Paredes, 1B Mike Carp and OF Greg Halman to Class AAA.
The Mariners came back to defeat the Chicago Cubs, 5-3, this afternoon in Peoria, Ariz. to extend their unbeaten streak to eight straight games.
But the bigger news, which I’ve had confirmed to me after speaking to multiple sources today, is that the final job in the Mariners starting rotation is now Michael Pineda’s to lose. Service time will not play into the final decision.
And so far, in the eyes of the team, Pineda has outperformed the remaining candidates for the job.
I spoke moments ago with Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who, I should mention, is not one of the sources I just refered to. Zduriencik declined to handicap the rotation race in any way.
But he did echo the sentiments of others I spoke to in saying that service time will not play into the final decision.
“I don’t think we’re going to worry about service time,” Zduriencik told me. “No one’s going to hold them back. If they’re ready to play, we’re going to let them play.”
The only real competition left for the final rotation slot, now that Nate Robertson will be undergoing elbow surgery, is left-handed pitcher Luke French. Charlie Haeger has been limited because of an injury and — even though knuckleballers traditionally need less time to build up enough endurance to start — won’t be ready to land a rotation spot when the season opens.
David Pauley has been used in a relief role up to now. Mariners manager Eric Wedge said after today’s victory over the Cubs that the team plans to stretch Pauley out more. The opening of minor league camp will give the M’s more opportunities to do that in minor league games and such.
Zduriencik told me he could envision Pauley in a dual role between the bullpen and rotation and starting games at some point during the season. But to start things off?
“Probably not,” he said.
That leaves just French.

And while French has pitched better since making a mechanical adjustment a couple of weeks ago, he hasn’t dazzled the way Pineda has at times. Pineda has looked overpowering against many hitters down here and the growing consensus within the organization is that he needs to be challenged at a level higher than Class AAA.
While some observers suggest Pineda’s secondary pitches — his change-up and slider — are still not major league ready, others disagree. Within the team itself, the consensus seems to be that he’s as near a finished product as you’re going to get out of a AAA pitcher who has yet to reach the majors.
And so, there you go.
One consideration that was mentioned to me today was that the team doesn’t want to risk alienating any player who is clearly ready for the bigs by holding him back because of service time issues. That, in the end, the risk of hampering a player’s development by ticking him off because you’ve left him in the minors would likely negate any value of gaining that extra year of service time.
There is also the issue of what the rest of the players in the clubhouse think. As it was put to me today, the rest of the team sees what’s happening out there on the mound. If somebody else who has clearly pitched worse than Pineda was to be promoted ahead of him, there would be hard feelings amongst the other players. After all, they all want to win as well. And they want the pitcher out there who they feel gives them the best shot at winning every fifth day.
So far, that’s been Pineda. And if you don’t think that the opinions of the other 24 guys in the room matter, then you haven’t paid attention to what’s gone on in this organization since 2008. It does matter.
It would have been different had Robertson come out and done what the organization hoped he would this spring. You’ll remember, he struck out three batters in two scoreless innings his first time out, but then got hampered by elbow problems and was roughed up his last two times on the mound.
Had Robertson continued to perform and things been more even between him and Pineda, the team would have kept the non-roster, veteran lefty. Robertson has an opt-out clause in his contract and could have become a free agent if he didn’t make the club out of spring training. So, all things being roughly, even if not exactly equal, he’d have won the tiebreaker with Pineda.
But now that Robertson’s out of the mix, things are hardly been equal between Pineda and other candidates in camp. Both Pineda and French are on the 40-man roster and have minor league options. And if service time is left out of the equation, Pineda has been the better of the two.
The Mariners don’t want players in their own clubhouse and around the game muttering that the team left its best rotation candidate in the minors to save a few bucks and gain another year of service time (same thing, really).
Now, this isn’t the same as Dustin Ackley’s situation. Ackley’s bat appears major league ready, but his fielding still needs work. That has been made obvious in the games played so far and his comfort level at perfecting a new position at second base would probably best be served in AAA. That’s still going to happen. But in Pineda’s case, he isn’t learning a new position. He’s perfecting his pitches. And the team feels he’s perfected them enough to play in the majors as of right now.
That can still change over the next two weeks. If Pineda walks a bunch of guys and gets shelled on Wednesday, then again his next two times out, all bets are off. Like I said, it’s his job to win at the moment. He can still lose it. But if he keeps it up, I’m told he’ll be in uniform in Oakland on April 1.
Zduriencik, of course, won’t confirm or deny any of this. All he’ll say is that service time won’t play into the decision. And really, if that’s the case, you don’t need him to confirm or deny anything. Based on the in-game evidence, service-time aside, Pindea is now the frontrunner.
“We’ve got two more weeks to figure things out,” Zduriencik said. “A lot can happen from now until then. But at the end of the day, we’re going to do what we think is…best for the player, best for the team and best for the organization. And if it all points to someone making our ballclub because they’ve earned it, then they should be given that right.”



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