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Pineda could be a difference-maker for Yankees

Righty has worked his way back from shoulder surgery and is poised to join rotation

TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Pineda has had better days this spring. But if this is what he can do when he is not especially on, then you can see why he was an All-Star his rookie season with the Mariners and why he has been one of the best surprises in the Grapefruit League for the Yankees.

The regular season is fast approaching, and there are questions about the Yankees' lineup. But as for the rebuilt starting rotation, manager Joe Girardi's thoughts should be fairly clear.

Bring it on.

CC Sabathia is getting outs without his old velocity. Masahiro Tanaka is making a smooth transition to Major League Baseball. Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova have been solid, as always. And the Yankees have depth they did not have last year.

Credit Pineda. The 25-year-old right-hander isn't overpowering hitters, as general manager Brian Cashman had expected him to when he traded Jesus Montero to get him from the Mariners in January 2012, but he has worked his way back from career-threatening shoulder surgery to become a pitcher with a different kind of promise.

"You're never really sure what you'll have when they come back [from that surgery]," Girardi said after Sunday's 3-1 loss to Toronto at George M. Steinbrenner Field. "But he's come back really good."

Pineda agrees. His belief in himself has grown throughout a Spring Training that has been the opposite of the painful one in 2012, when he arrived with expectations as oversized as his build (he's listed at 6-foot-7, 265 pounds) and had a hard time getting on the mound because of problems in his shoulder, leading to a complicated surgery that May to repair a tear in the labrum.

"Everything is doing good," Pineda said. "I'm the same Michael Pineda."

That's saying something. As a rookie in 2011, he held hitters to a .211 batting average and compiled a 1.1 WHIP. That's the neighborhood that is generally occupied by No. 1 starters like Yu Darvish, David Price, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer.

A scout with an American League team watched Pineda for the third time on Sunday. He's been so impressed that he said Pineda could be a middle-of-the-rotation guy for many teams, and possibly even a No. 2 starter for some.

Girardi has not handed Pineda a spot in the Yankees' rotation yet, but that is likely to change after an off-day on Monday. While David Phelps has also pitched well, and Girardi said that Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno haven't been eliminated, Pineda appears to have won the battle for the fifth-starter's job.

Pineda, who took the loss against the Blue Jays, had not allowed a run until Sunday. He had 14 strikeouts and one walk entering the start, using a 92-93 mph fastball to set up his wipeout slider. He used his changeup and curveball more against the Jays than he had earlier this spring, perhaps because he knew he'd work three times through the batting order.

Melky Cabrera and Adam Lind ripped long doubles off Pineda, who struck out only two in his six innings. He hurt himself with a throwing error and also hit batter, but he flashed his potential by holding Jose Bautista to a quiet 0-for-3.

Bautista grounded back to the mound on an 82-mph changeup in the first inning. In the third, Pineda buzzed Bautista inside with a 1-1 fastball, getting a strike as Bautista tried to check his swing, and then retired him on a grounder to second baseman Brian Roberts. Bautista popped out to first baseman Mark Teixeira in the fifth inning.

Catcher Brian McCann said Pineda has been producing "awkward swings'' all spring, and the work against Bautista was a perfect example. Pineda also showed some athleticism by breaking across the infield to cover first on a double play that Teixeira started in the second.

"We practice it all the time, covering first," Pineda said. "That's what I was doing."

Pineda was as excited as Teixeira, who pumped his fist after the double play. It wasn't just that he had escaped a jam that had started with an error by third baseman Eduardo Nunez, but that he was completing his case to go to Houston with Girardi's team for Opening Day.

"He's been good,'' Girardi said. "His changeup's been good. His slider's been really good. His fastball's been good. I think his command is getting better, too, every time he goes out.''

The Yankees outbid the Cubs, Dodgers and others for Tanaka because they didn't feel they had enough pitching to compete against the Red Sox, Rays and Orioles. Imagine if Pineda steps up to show them they had an ace up their sleeve.

That would be really interesting.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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