Mariners fans dream of the day — maybe not long from now — when Michael Pineda will join Felix Hernandez in the rotation.
PHOENIX — Spring training days like Monday are designed for dreaming.
The A’s, perhaps not wanting to give the Mariners any scouting opportunities, sent out a team largely comprised of players who will never see the major-league light of day in 2011.
The Mariners, on the other hand, sent out their glittering ace, Felix Hernandez, followed by the Man Who Would Be King, Michael Pineda.
It was hard not to envision a day in the future — perhaps the not-so-distant future, for the most ardent dreamers — when the Mariners might have not one, but two dominating pitchers in their rotation.
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Pineda is still raw, not yet two months past his 22nd birthday. Yet he exudes potential, from the huge frame to the electric stuff. Before the game, Jaime Navarro, the Mariners’ new bullpen coach, dared to say what many were thinking Monday as Hernandez and Pineda were showcased back-to-back in Seattle’s 6-3 victory at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
“You have Fifi (Hernandez) and you have Michael, who can become a great pitcher,” Navarro said. “That will be beautiful to watch. That will be one of my best days, seeing those two guys together.”
Navarro, as much as anyone, has witnessed firsthand the growth and nurturing of Pineda since his signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2005 at age 16.
Navarro was his pitching coach at Class A Wisconsin in 2008, Pineda’s first year in the United States. They were together again in 2009 at High Desert in the Class A California League.
When Pineda was elevated to Tacoma in 2010 after destroying Class AA competition (8-1, 2.22 earned-run average, 78 strikeouts in 77 innings for West Tennessee), Navarro — by then the Rainiers’ pitching coach — witnessed Pineda’s dazzling AAA debut as he blanked Salt Lake on one hit over six innings.
“From day one, I saw something in that kid not too many pitchers have,” Navarro said. “With Michael, it’s just a matter of time. He’s getting mature, getting comfortable. He’s going to be one of those guys — another Hernandez. It’s just a matter of how he’s going to handle it.”
So far, so good. After Hernandez wobbled through 2-2/3 innings in his spring debut on Monday, giving up five hits and one run, Pineda followed with two scoreless innings against the A’s.
It wasn’t flawless, like his two perfect innings against Arizona last week. This time, Pineda walked two and gave up a hit, but manager Eric Wedge liked his composure in working out of a minor jam in his second inning.
“He continues to be confident with his secondary stuff, able to slow it down when he needs to slow it down, which is always nice to see for a young pitcher,” Wedge said. “For a young person fighting for a spot in the starting rotation, he’s handled himself very well. His stuff is the obvious, but I think the way he’s handled himself along with that has been very impressive.”
Impressive enough to make it impossible for the Mariners to keep him out of their rotation? Too early to tell, but Pineda’s first two outings might have them thinking hard about the possibility, never mind the implications for free agency in 2017.
Pineda has wisely aligned himself with Hernandez, watching his every move on and off the field. And Hernandez is enjoying the mentoring role, initially delaying his media session on Monday because he wanted to watch Pineda.
“He’s got pretty good stuff, man,” Hernandez said. “I don’t have to tell nothing to that guy. Man, he’s unbelievable.”
Pineda acknowledged that succeeding Hernandez on the mound was a thankless proposition.
“To follow Felix, it’s a little difficult, no?” he said. “Because he’s nasty.”
That said, Pineda doesn’t see himself as a Hernandez clone. He once told Navarro that while he greatly admired Hernandez, “I want to do things on my own. Felix is Felix, and I want to be Michael Pineda.”
One area of growth for Pineda is in his language skills, a not insignificant challenge for young Latin players. Hernandez, who now converses easily in English after struggling in his early years, is again a role model for Pineda, whose command of the language is growing rapidly.
“When he first got here, he (Pineda) understood nothing,” said the bilingual Navarro, who grew up in Puerto Rico. “And I pushed him. I said, ‘You have a gift. The only way you can accomplish that gift is to learn the language. You have to work at that.’ “
Navarro said he and Pineda went to Barnes and Noble together to buy language books, and later a Rosetta Stone computer program. Pineda is still working diligently to learn English, supported by the organization.
“Now he’s not afraid,” Navarro said. “He talks when he needs to talk and he’s not afraid to do it. Many of the guys are afraid of what they say; they don’t want to sound stupid. He doesn’t care. He says, ‘The only way I can make myself better is just talking.’
“Seeing Felix gives him a little more confidence — ‘If he can do it, why can’t I? I want to become that. I want to be that.’ That’s a big help. That relationship — Felix is doing a great job teaching him how things are, how things work up here. Learning from a guy like that is going to make the difference, not just because he’s Spanish-speaking. He can teach him how to approach the game, how to deal with the press, what to do when things aren’t going well. That’s a great thing for Michael right now.”
There may well be rockier times ahead this spring for Pineda, as there are inevitably for every young pitcher trying to forge his way to the top. But by every measure, from a fastball that reached 100 mph last year to his continued poise on the mound and in the clubhouse, Pineda’s ascension is causing more excitement that any young Mariners pitcher since, well, Hernandez.
“He’s so into it, so calm,” Navarro said of Pineda. “The best part is he’s been handling spring training so well. He’s doing things the right way. He’s been learning, he asks when he has questions. He’s not afraid. He’s smart. He’s still a kid, but he knows what he wants to be.”
Fans aren’t the only ones with big dreams in March.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com