Francisco Liriano is one of the most talented left-handed starting pitchers in baseball. If last season’s performance is any indication, Liriano is on track to becoming the bonafide ace the Twins have desperately needed since they traded away Johan Santana after the 2007 season. He does everything you could possibly want out of an ace quality starting pitcher. He strikes out batters, limits walks, and induces ground balls at a rate exceeding 50%. Even more impressive is Liriano’s pitch arsenal that features a plus slider that darts out of the zone (worth 60.9 runs in 549 innings); a plus tumbling change up; and an average fastball that sits 91-95 and touches 96-97. Usually when a team has a pitcher of this caliber under their control, they do everything they can to hold on to him. Apparently, this is not the case with the Twins.
Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune reports that the Twins do not consider Liriano to be part of their long-term plans, and have considering the idea of trading the young All-Star.
“With six pitchers vying for five spots in the Twins starting rotation, one possible solution is trading Francisco Liriano. Speaking to team officials recently, I've been surprised how open they are to this possibility, but the logic makes sense.
One thing is clear: The Twins don't plan to sign him long term. Last weekend, they avoided arbitration with a one-year, $4.3 million deal. From what I've heard, their long-term talks went nowhere, with Liriano's camp hinting it wanted a three-year, $39 million contract. Even if that was just a starting point for negotiations -- and to be clear, I'm not sure -- the Twins were wise to pass.”
I can see how the logic might make sense if Liriano was asking for Felix Hernandez money (five years $78M), but he’s not. In fact, he’s asking for nearly the same contract (albeit slightly more) that Carl Pavano was seeking when free agency started this past November. While Pavano didn’t get the three year contract he was seeking, that had more to do with his suitors’ comfort level committing to an aging pitcher for his age-35/36/37 seasons than his current talent level.
With Liriano, 27, age isn’t a concern. If the Twins had signed him to a three year deal this offseason, they would’ve reaped the benefits of having an ace quality pitcher locked into a team friendly contract (depending on the salary breakdown) for his age-27/28/29 seasons. Instead, they chose to settle out of arbitration on a one year deal worth $4.3M. The decision not to actively pursue a multi-year contract with him will likely result in further escalation of Liriano’s asking price.
Assuming Liriano is a 5.0 WAR true talent level pitcher, we can roughly assume he’ll produce a WAR line of 5.0/4.5/4.0 (13.5 WAR) over the next three seasons. With average cost of a win being around $5M, and assuming a yearly 5% increase in salary inflation, Liriano would likely provide between $65-70M in performance based value over that period. If this projection comes to fruition, the Twins (and Joe Christensen) will look down right foolish for not agreeing to sign him to the three year $39M extension Liriano and his representation are reportedly seeking.
Furthermore, Christensen calls Liriano an “injury risk,” citing both his injury history while pitching in the minors and the elbow injury he sustained during the 2006 season. I’m not convinced his assertion is either fair, or warranted. While it’s true Liriano had Tommy John surgery, the surgery was performed nearly five years ago. Since he returned in 2008, he’s neither missed any starts, nor spent any time on the disabled list due to an arm injury. While I’ll admit he took longer than expected to return to his pre-surgery form, I don’t think it was completely outside of the norm. His struggles with command, limiting walks, and maintaining velocity are all common issues of those recovering from Tommy John surgery. Once he regained his command and velocity, his performance rebounded strongly as a result.
Christensen goes on to make a few lazy and poorly considered observations. For starters, he cites struggles in two unconnected starts as reasons to criticize Liriano’s failure to perform in big situations. The first start he discussed was, in his words, the “much hyped showdown with Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez.” What Christensen fails to recognize is that the showdown he speaks of, didn’t exist. Liriano wasn’t pitching against Jimenez. He was pitching against the Colorado Rockies lineup. In fact, that matchup was a home game for the Twins, so neither pitcher batted. While it was certainly disappointing to see Liriano give up three runs (all earned) in the first inning, he managed to pitch six scoreless innings thereafter, while putting up a game score of 58. We shouldn’t be holding him full responsible for the Twins loss that day. After all, the line-up only provided one run of support in a 5-1 loss. Additionally, this was an interleague game in mid-June against a team that finished 83-79. It was hardly a high leverage moment.
The second start in question was Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees. For the first five innings, Liriano pitched masterfully, shutting out the Bronx Bombers. In the sixth inning, he fell apart by allowing four runs in 2/3 innings. While his performance was disappointing, he left the game down 4-3; the Twins tied it up in the bottom half of that inning. Again, holding him responsible for the playoff loss is pretty unfair. After he left the game, RP Jesse Crain allowed two runs to give the Yankees a 6-4 lead. The Yankees never relinquished the lead, and took Game 1. While Liriano certainly contributed to the Game 1 loss, Jesse Crain and the other 14 players involved in that game also contributed to the loss.
Christensen later goes onto criticize Liriano for not finishing the eighth inning in any of his final 20 starts. First of all, I feel compelled to point out that Liriano actually did finish the eighth inning in one of his final 20 starts. It was the final 19 starts in which he didn’t finish the eighth. I know I’m splitting hairs, but this is my blog. I can do as I please. Secondly, it wasn’t his choice to get pulled out of the game. It was Ron Gardenhire’s decision. I’m not surprised either. The Twins were blessed with an unbelievably deep bullpen, especially in August and September, and Liriano didn’t need to pitch beyond the eighth inning. Furthermore, while Liriano didn’t meet Christensen’s arbitrary eight inning limit over his final 19 starts, he did meet or exceed the seven inning limit nine times, and the six inning limit an additional two times. He’s not one that I would consider to be a workhorse, but he certainly put in his share of longer starts.
The Twins are making a big mistake if they’re honestly not interested in retaining Liriano long-term. With his command and velocity returning to his pre-surgery levels, there’s no reason to believe his 2010 season was a fluke. Liriano is a fantastic pitcher. True ace quality pitchers aren’t easy to come by, and the Twins need to lock him up immediately. A three year $39M contract for a pitcher of his caliber is a steal, and they’d be a fool not to jump at that opportunity.