Lakeland, Fla. – The big man, all 6-7, 300 pounds of him, was sitting in front of his locker, sipping a cup of coffee Sunday morning, waiting to sign more papers, waiting for the visa process to play out, waiting. Still waiting.
“I’ve been in the league for a little bit but I’ve never seen nothing like this,” said Michael Pineda, the 33-year-old right-hander the Tigers signed Saturday for one year and $5.5 million.
He was talking about his free agent experience, pre- and post-lockout. The uncertainty, the anxiety, especially after not getting a single offer before the lockout.
“I cannot say I was a little nervous, but, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s done now. We have two weeks to get ready to play baseball.”
Well, it’s not completely done. There was no uniform in his locker Sunday because technically he is not yet a Tigers employee. Not until his visitor’s visa is transferred to a work visa.
“I don’t really know the process, but I know the process is quick,” Pineda said. “Hopefully the quicker they can get it I can have a normal practice with my team, and I can go out there and pitch.”
The process can take up to two weeks, which means there is a good chance Pineda won’t immediately come north with the Tigers for the regular season opener on April 8.
“We think he should be ready, maybe not on Opening Day, but close thereafter,” general manager Al Avila said on Saturday. “He’s not going to be the Opening Day starter anyway, so we have a few days to work with. We are looking at the whole 162-game season here.”
Pineda, slotted into the fifth spot in the Tigers’ rotation behind Eduardo Rodriguez, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, wouldn’t make his first start until April 12 against Boston. If his visa comes through this week, he would have close to three weeks to build up to at least five innings.
“I’m pretty close now,” Pineda said. “I try to keep my body and arm in shape. With everything so crazy in baseball, we had to be ready whenever baseball started. We had to be ready to play. I’ve thrown a couple of bullpens in the Dominican but it’s not the same as when you have your teammates.
“But I got the physical behind me and the work is better. Now that I am here, (being ready by) Opening Day is the goal.”
The wait is an annoyance for him, for sure, but it’s really just a speed bump compared to all he’s overcome in his career, a career, by the way, that started in Seattle in 2011 where he ended up on the American League All-Star team, replacing then Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander.
He was traded to the Yankees the next year in the C.C. Sabathia deal and didn’t end up pitching in the big leagues again until 2014. A torn labral in his right shoulder cost him 2012 and most of 2013.
He made the Yankees rotation in 2014 but in his second start got busted for using pine tar to get a better grip on the baseball. Most pitchers used it at the time, but Pineda smeared it on his neck. It was too obvious and he was shut down for 10 days. And, salt to the wounds, pitching a simulated game during the suspension he strained the teres major muscle and he didn’t pitch again until August.
He had Tommy John surgery in 2017. He tore his meniscus in 2018. And when finally he was healthy and throwing well for the Twins in 2019, he was suspended for 60 days for using a banned substance, hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic usually prescribed for blood pressure.
So, yes, he knows something about waiting and waiting.
“When I got a call from the Tigers I was in the Dominican,” Pineda said. “I say, ‘Wow, OK.’ I am happy to have the opportunity to sign here. I am happy to be here.”
Over the years, as the velocity on his fastball decreased from mid-to-upper 90s to low 90s, he’s had to refashion his approach against hitters. Always a strike-thrower (69% last season), last season he was able to spot and move his fastball (90 mph) around in the zone with precision and get hitters to chase his slider (37.7% whiff rate).
“Every year you get some experience, you learn something different,” Pineda said. “The last couple of years I try to focus on getting quick outs, not on the velocity. I focus on going, five, six, seven innings and giving my team an opportunity to win. That is the goal.”
He learned last year, too, that his change-up can be a real weapon, even if it’s just to make hitters aware of a third pitch.
“Last year I had good success pitching with my change-up,” he said, specifically in his last five starts when he went 5-0 with a 1.85 ERA. “I started using it a lot, and that’s something I never did before. I always throw a lot of sliders and fastballs, but last year I work more with the change-up and that helped me a lot.”
He threw the change-up a career-high 17% last year.
He also threw 1 innings last year — and that is a key statistical category to watch this year. The Tigers have build another $2.3 million of incentives into his contract based on innings pitched.
He will earn $375,000 each when he reaches 50, 75, 100 and 125 innings. He will earn $500,000 if he throws 150 innings and another $500,000 if the throws 175 innings.
“Right now I am just focused on being here,” he said. “The Tigers gave me an opportunity to be here and I am so excited and happy. I want to help this team win the division and get into the playoffs.”