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As Pineda Works His Way Back, He Remains Yankees' Biggest X Factor

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The Yankees are still waiting to see if they made the right decision on a trade they pulled off back in 2011.

Needless to say, it's been that long of a road back from injury for Michael Pineda.

The 6-foot-7 right-hander, who was an All-Star as a rookie with the Seattle Mariners back in 2011, used to throw in the mid-to-upper 90s with incredible breaking stuff. However, what he's capable of now remains a great unknown. He has yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees in a regular-season game since being acquired in a deal that sent catching prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle.

There's a chance he could be the Yankees' fifth starter this season, provided his surgically-repaired right shoulder holds up. He impressed manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild on Monday during a bullpen session down at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa, Fla., but whether he will join the Bombers for the trip north is anyone's guess.

"I want to pitch in New York and pitch in the major leagues,'' Pineda, who was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA back in 2011, told reporters.

That will all depend on how far he's come since going under the knife to repair a labral tear suffered during spring training with the Yankees in 2012. He ended up missing that entire season and made 10 appearances, spanning 30 ²/₃ innings, last season in the minors.

"I am very excited for the competition and to make the rotation,'' Pineda said.

And competition he will face. David Phelps, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno and Pineda are currently battling for the final slot behind CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and $155 million man Masahiro Tanaka.

If Pineda, a 25-year-old from the Dominican Republic, can recapture what propelled him to the majors in the first place, the Yankees stand to have one of the better rotations in baseball. But if he doesn't, the Bombers will be forced to ride their other kids until they can possibly acquire help from elsewhere.

The Yankees spent nearly half a billion dollars this offseason, but still have concerns about their older position players and apparent holes in the bullpen. So it behooves them to have their rotation be the strength of the team. But Sabathia is coming off a brutal season by his lofty standards, Kuroda is 39 and fresh off a disastrous final 10 starts last season, Nova has yet to prove he can consistently deliver the goods every fifth day, despite moments of brilliance in 2013, and Tanaka is a great unknown.

If Pineda or one of the other younger arms can step up, it will lessen the burden on everyone else.

Pineda said his bullpen session Monday gave him reason to believe he will be a serious factor going forward.

"No pain at all and it's strong,'' Pineda said of his shoulder. "It's strong and has good power. I (am) throwing the ball faster.''

"I was happy with what I saw," Girardi said of the right-hander's near-three dozen pitches. "I thought the ball came out really well today. It looked different than a couple of years ago when he got hurt. I am anxious to see him get in games in 12 days or so.''

A lot can happen over the next six weeks, and Girardi doesn't need to name a fifth starter until the end of March. But he said he's very much aware of what a healthy and game-ready Pineda could mean to his club's chances of returning to the playoffs following last season's third-place showing in the AL East.

"I think it would be a boost. It's a significant arm. If he is able to come back and be in your rotation … it's a young starter. He doesn't have a ton of mileage on him in a sense,'' Girardi said. "I think it would be pretty significant.''

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