Michael Pineda and The Market for Lemons

A little less than a year ago, the Yankees and Mariners essentially agreed to swap top prospect Jesus Montero for rookie sensation Michael Pineda. The trade was unconventional in that one very young and promising player was dealt for another young, promising player. Traditionally, trades involving young players like this have brought back established veterans who were more likely to contribute right now. The trade certainly seemed logical though: The Yankees had nowhere to play Montero and needed pitching. The Mariners had pitching to spare, but desperately needed offense (.283 wOBA in 2011). 

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Pineda was not the same pitcher he was in 2011 from the get-go in spring training last year. Decreased velocity turned into shoulder tendinitis which turned into a torn labrum. In hindsight, the timing of all of this was a little suspicious considering he showed diminished performance from his first pitch in a Yankee uniform. Could it be that the Mariners knew that something was amiss with Pineda’s shoulder?

In 1970, George Akerlof wrote a Nobel Prize winning essay about asymmetric information entitled “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.”  The primary example he used in his essay was the market for used cars. The “lemons” refer to defective cars not known to be defective until after they’re bought. The takeaway was that if someone is selling his or her car, there’s probably something wrong with that car. This explains why the retail value for cars drops as soon as they leave the showroom.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. So was Michael Pineda a lemon? It certainly looks like it.

Although his original MRI showed only shoulder inflammation, things did not improve with Pineda’s shoulder and a dye-cast MRI revealed a small labral tear. Even Brian Cashman admits that the injury went undetected for a while. He said, “I think it’s real fair to speculate that there was something there, laying dormant, that wasn’t detectable during regular MRIs.” So it seems there’s a decent chance that Pineda was damaged goods at the time of the trade. 

But did the Mariners know he was a lemon? This is something we may never know. But again, the timing of everything is a little suspicious. Theoretically, the Mariners may have seen something in an MRI of their own and kept quiet about it. That would be a risky endeavour though considering the amount of people who would need to be involved. There’s a good chance that someone would fess up upon leaving the organization. 

Even if they lacked conclusive evidence of an injury, it’s certainly possible that the Mariners knew something the Yankees didn’t. For one thing, his velocity was down a few miles per hour in his last start of 2011. He was pitching on 11 days rest which could be an explanation. But maybe the Mariners knew of some sort of discomfort or saw something unusual with his mechanics that night that diminished their internal valuation. 

This is not meant to suggest any wrongdoing by the Mariners’ front office as asymmetric information is part of the game. Teams compete against each other and obviously act in their own best interests. Even though it seems to be decreasing, asymmetric information is something that will always exist to some extent in baseball simply because teams see so much more of their own players. 

In fact, you could apply a similar argument to the Yankees’ trading Jesus Montero. Despite his prospect status and minor league performance, he basically flopped in his rookie season in Seattle. It could be that the Yankees knew something about Montero’s approach or personality that was unknown to Seattle. Perhaps this is part of the reason why we rarely see trades like the Montero/Pineda swap. Akerlof theorizes that the existence of lower quality goods on the market could scare off potential buyers. So when a team dangles a talented player without much of a track record, other teams might automatically assume there’s a flaw due to their limited information.

I personally don’t think the Mariners intentionally dealt an injured player to the Yankees in this deal. It’s a little surprising, though, that there haven’t been more accusations by the media given the timing of everything. It’s still very early, but after one year this trade doesn’t seem to be panning out for either team involved. But maybe that’s why the trade was able to happen in the first place.

By André Karwath aka Aka (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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