TAMPA — It was first about Alex Rodriguez and his year-long suspension from baseball. The attention then turned to Derek Jeter and his desire to retire after the season.
There are many Yankees issues, including how effective will Dave Robertson be taking over for Mariano Rivera? How will the loss of Robinson Cano affect the offense, and the defense, in the infield? Do the Yankees have enough depth in the rotation and the bullpen? And how will their new high-priced free agents (Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann) mesh with the team?
But there were two other players in the clubhouse at George Steinbrenner Field Monday who also will have a huge say in how well the team performs.
In one corner was righthanded starter Michael Pineda, certainly not a household name in New York or anywhere. In the other corner was veteran first baseman Mark Teixeira, who played in only 15 games last season after wrist surgery.
Teixeira could be the cleanup hitter in a very potent lineup, while Pineda’s recovery from a major anterior labral tear in his right shoulder, which caused him to miss the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons, could be the boost the Yankees’ rotation needs.
At one time, Pineda was considered one of the top young pitchers in the American League, coming on the scene at age 22 in 2011 and pitching in lockstep with Felix Hernandez. Pineda made 28 starts that season, and had a 9-10 record with a 3.74 ERA. He struck out 173 in 171 innings and walked 55, with a WHIP of 1.099.
The Mariners, however, were looking for offense. And so the promising young pitcher was traded to New York for the promising young hitter — catcher/1B/DH Jesus Montero.
It was one of those “hold your breath” deals, with the Yankees hoping Montero didn’t turn into Mike Piazza and the Mariners hoping Pineda didn’t turn into King Felix.
Pineda injured his shoulder and Montero has been a bust and also was busted for PED use, serving a 50-game suspension last season.
Pineda is still only 25, and the slimmed-down 6-foot-7-inch, 260-pounder is showing signs of his old form.
“I thought the ball was coming out easier [than in previous years],” manager Joe Girardi said. “I know he’s had time to clean up a couple things, too, mechanically, in this two-year span. He just looked like it came out free and easy to me. Didn’t look like he put a ton of effort into it, or that he was overthrowing it. To me, it looked different than what I saw a couple years ago when he got hurt and was pitching in games. I’m anxious to see him obviously get in some games in the next 12 days or so.”
Pineda didn’t know how hard he was throwing Monday but he said he felt every bit as good as he did in Seattle when he felt strong. He feels like he’s throwing hard.
“I’m feeling so strong. I’m feeling good power,” Pineda said. “I’m throwing the same [as before the shoulder surgery]. Mechanics the same. Everything is the same. All pitches are the same. I’m the same Michael Pineda.”
The Yankees are cautiously optimistic that Pineda can at least compete for the fifth-starter job with Dave Phelps.
“We believe he’s healthy,” Girardi said. “But I still think you have to pay attention to it. You have to pay attention to all the signs that could be exhibited from not pitching, really, for two years.”
Teixeira is hitting again and is still strengthening the right wrist, which at times still feels “tight,” especially when he bats lefthanded. The switch-hitting first baseman said he came to realize how much baseball means to him.
“I see a silver lining in everything,” he said. “What this allowed me to do was kind of realize how lucky I am to play the game and how much fun it is hanging around with the guys and being part of a team.”
“It was pretty brutal,” he said of the rehab. “Cast for six weeks. Splint for three weeks after that. For somebody who is active, watching your team play on TV, it was not fun. When I started to be able to start running and do some things with the team toward the end of the season, it made it a little more bearable. But it was tough process.”
Teixeira, who will turn 34 on April 11, enters the season with 341 homers, 1,113 RBIs, and a career .894 OPS.
“I didn’t miss losing or going 0 for 4,” he said. “When you’re going good — hitting well and your team is winning — there’s nothing better. But when you’re going 0 for 4 and you’re losing it’s not a lot of fun.”
Teixeira was asked if the tightness he experiences from the left side continues, would he consider doing what the Red Sox’ Shane Victorino did for a time last season and bat only righthanded?
“I would hang them up before I did that,” he said. “I’m too good of a hitter to go only one way. I would never consider that.”
Having won a championship with the Yankees in 2009, he was asked about the difficulty of repeating, as the Red Sox will try to do this season, and whether the hunger still will be there.
“I think winning a World Series makes you more motivated,” Teixeira said. “You don’t realize how great it is until you do it and how empty it is not to do it. For the first six years of my career I had a good time. I was putting up good numbers, having a lot of fun. But then the season’s over and that’s it. Once you’ve won one, you realize that’s it. That’s why you play a team sport.”
Teixeira remembers when the Yankees won there were players who stepped up whom no one saw coming. He mentioned Phil Hughes being a dynamic setup man to Rivera and Robertson being a seventh-inning performer. So he understands what Pineda could mean to the Yankees.
“You have to have guys step up that nobody expects to,” Teixeira said. “We have some guys here who could do that.”
Asked specifically about the Red Sox winning the championship, he said, “It wasn’t surprising. They have good players who played together and who won together. They had those guys step up at the right time. I wish it had been us. But with everything we went through last season I thought we showed tremendous professionalism. We battled through a lot of things and yet we contended for most of the season.”
And he has no worries about Robertson being successful.
“I told him be yourself. Keep doing what you’ve done as the eighth-inning guy. Just because it’s the ninth inning, things don’t change,” he said.
As for the new additions, including former Red Sox Ellsbury, Teixeira said, “It just adds a great element to our team. He’s so talented. So fast. We have people who can hit the ball a long way, but this adds a new dimension to our lineup.”