TAMPA, Fla. - Michael Pineda never has seemed happier in a Yankees uniform. And for good reason.

The 26-year-old righthander, seen almost daily bounding into the clubhouse with a smile as he interacts with teammates, feels completely healthy. He hasn't felt that way at this time of year since 2011, his rookie season with the Mariners.

"I feel pretty happy right now,'' Pineda said Monday after making his exhibition debut in the Yankees' 4-3 victory over the Rays at Steinbrenner Field. He started and went two innings, allowing one hit with two strikeouts.

"Typical Michael,'' Joe Girardi said. "A lot of strikes [17 out of 25 pitches]. Good fastball, slider, changeup. For a first outing, really good.''

The caliber of Pineda's stuff never has been an issue in his Yankees career. His ability to stay healthy is another matter.

The 6-7 Pineda, acquired in January 2012 in the Jesus Montero trade with the Mariners, was outstanding last year (5-5, 1.89 ERA). But he made only 13 starts, missing almost four months with a muscle injury in his right shoulder, the same one that suffered a torn labrum during spring training in 2012. He needed surgery to repair the labrum, which kept him from pitching in the big leagues in 2013.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

All of that, Pineda and the Yankees hope, is in the past, and based on early indications, that seems to be the case. Scouts had his fastball topping out at 95 mph Monday, with good movement on his changeup and slider.

"When he's got all three of those things,'' Brian McCann said, "he's as tough to hit as anybody.''

That was the case in the first half of 2011, when Pineda showed signs of becoming one of the next great young pitchers. With a mid- to high-90s fastball and a nasty slider, he went 8-5 with a 2.58 ERA in his first 17 starts for Seattle.

Pineda wears his cap slightly askew. Alex Rodriguez recalled dugout conversations with Derek Jeter about Pineda in 2011.

"I remember Jeter and I would say, 'We're facing this guy? He's not even looking to home plate, he's looking behind us,' '' Rodriguez said Monday. "I would say, 'What kind of stuff does this guy have, Jete?' He'd say, 'Very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable.' ''

Yankees videos

A-Rod was still shaking his head at the pitch Pineda used to strike out Evan Longoria to end the first. "He threw Longoria a 2-and-2 power changeup that was 90, that looked Clemens-like or Schilling-like,'' Rodriguez said. "He has the opportunity to be a top of the rotation guy for a long time.''

But first things first, which is Pineda surpassing his career high in innings -- 171 in 2011. He hasn't approached that total since. "If he does [stay healthy],'' Girardi said, "we feel pretty good about what he can do for us.''

For a first game, Pineda was pleased, particularly with his ability to control all of his pitches. "I'm excited because the command was there,'' he said. "Everything was good.''

Masahiro Tanaka, assuming continued good health for him, is the unquestioned No. 1 of the rotation, with a healthy Pineda likely next.

Health. It's a word that comes up again and again in Yankees camp for some players, with Pineda near the top of the list.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"That's what I want,'' he said. "I'm working hard every day to be healthy.''