Pineiro hoping strong start propels return to Majors
Veteran right-hander set to pitch for Puerto Rico on Tuesday in Caribbean Series
ISLA DE MARGARITA, Venezuela -- Veteran right-hander Joel Pineiro emerged from the clubhouse several hours before the first pitch against Mexico on Sunday afternoon, jogged up the green turf steps to the field at Stadium Nueva Esparta and sprinted to his usual spot on the warning track in left.
Then it began.
The Caribbean sun beat down on the back of Pineiro's blue long-sleeve workout shirt and his white pants reflected the sunlight as he ran across the outfield. Pineiro's trademark Oakley sunglasses didn't move the entire time.
Running foul pole to foul pole or around the stadium on the dirt warning track has been a part of the pitcher's life since he began his career as a Mariners Minor Leaguer seventeen years ago.
Now there's a chance his run could come to an end.
Pineiro, who has not pitched in the big leagues since 2011 with the Angels, is on the comeback trail and is scheduled to start Tuesday for Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez against Cuba's Villa Clara team. Tuesday's outing might be Pineiro's last chance to impress a big league team and earn a Spring Training invitation. It could also be the last time he ever steps onto the mound in a game.
"I have had 11 years in the big leagues, so I'm not complaining, but I'm not ready to shut it down," he said. "I'm 35 and I told my wife this would be my last real push at it. I have four kids, my oldest is in middle school, but I still have the desire and love for the game."
Pineiro went 2-0 with a 3.12 ERA in 26 innings in five outings for Ponce this winter in Puerto Rico. For his career, he's 104-93 with a 4.41 ERA in 335 games (263 starts) since he made his big league debut for Seattle in 2000.
He does not have any concrete offers to attend Spring Training, but he remains optimistic.
"Hopefully, I'll know more after Tuesday," he said. "But all you have to do is look at a guy like Scott Kazmir. He stands out because he was with us in Anaheim, goes to Independent ball, got a chance with Cleveland and made the team. Look at him now with the A's. A lot of players like Kazmir or Marlon Byrd have a good winter ball experience and Caribbean Series and all of a sudden, they get a second chance. I'm looking for that."
Pineiro has already had quite a career. Drafted in the 12th round by the Mariners in 1997, the right-hander went 58-55 with a 4.48 ERA in 996 innings for Seattle in parts of seven seasons. He signed with the Red Sox in 2007 but never established himself in Boston and was eventually traded to the Cardinals.
The move saved his career.
The hard-throwing Pineiro would go on to re-invent himself as a sinkerball pitcher under the guidance of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, and it changed the course of the pitcher's career. Pineiro signed a two-year deal with the Angels in 2010 after posting a 15-win season for the Cardinals the previous year.
"I'm not going to be the guy that throws 92-94 anymore and everyone knows that," Pineiro said. "Once I went to St. Louis, everything has been based on that sinker and pitching to contact. I have the experience of knowing how to pitch, I have my resume and now it's a matter of being healthy, which I am."
It's hard to blame teams for being careful with Pineiro.
After his time with the Angels, Pineiro was signed and released by the Phillies after a short stint in Spring Training in 2012. The veteran would go on to pitch briefly in the Baltimore organization later that year but eventually had season-ending right labrum surgery. He missed all of the 2013 season while recovering.
But now, he's back and aware of how important Tuesday's start against Cuba is to his future. Pineiro also knows he can turn to a familiar face in the dugout if he runs into trouble against Villa Clara. Dodgers pitching coordinator Rafael Chaves is Puerto Rico's pitching coach. He was one of Pineiro's first pitching coaches in Seattle.
"It's amazing how he transformed from one guy to another and is still be able to compete," Chaves said. "All he needs is his health. You know he will throw the ball over the plate and you know he will be aggressive. He's a good athlete and he can field his position. It's about finding the right opportunity for him, whether that's in a starting rotation or pitching in middle relief."
The Caribbean Series title is also at stake. A team from Puerto Rico has not won the championship since 2000 and the island is 1-1 after two games. Mayaguez defeated the Dominican Republic's Tigres de Licey, 7-6, in extra innings Saturday. They lost to Mexico, 6-3, on Sunday.
"I've been out the game for a year-and-half, so hard it's for a team to give me a guarantee," Pineiro said. "I just want that chance to earn the spot. I need to find a spot where I can prove that I still got it, even help out the younger guys."