7-14-12: The Curious Case of Francisco Liriano

[Ed.'s Note: This blog was written for, and also published at the "Twins Blog" on]

Francisco Liriano became a member of the Minnesota Twins organization on November 14, 2003, coming over from the San Francisco Giants in a trade for A.J. Pierzynski. He made his big league debut for the Twins on September 5th, 2005 in a relief appearance against the Texas Rangers where he pitched one inning giving up a home run to Gary Matthews while striking out two in what would ultimately be a 7-0 loss for the Twins.

He's been an enigma ever since.

In 2006 - his first full year in the majors - he was nothing short of brilliant. He won 12 games posting a 2.16 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, a strikeout rate of 10.7 per 9 innings, and a 4.50 K/BB ratio. He finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting and was chosen for the first of what most of us figured would be many All Star appearances.

Yet he finished the season suffering from forearm discomfort and pain, which baseball followers have learned is usually the first sign of ligament damage in a pitcher's elbow. Sure enough, on November 6, 2006, nearly three years from the day of his acquisition, Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery which wiped out the entirety of his 2007 season.

2008 was an up-and-down year for Liriano... quite literally. He made his post-surgery debut in April and got rocked by the Royals, lasting only four-and-two-thirds innings. He lasted just two more starts, getting knocked out of his April 24th start against Oakland after just two-thirds of an inning before being sent back to Triple-A Rochester to work on his mechanics.

He made 12 starts with the Red Wings and seemed to be back in 2006 form, posting a 3.28 ERA, a 1.127 WHIP, and striking out 8.6 batters per 9-innings. The Twins brought him back to the majors for an August 3rd start against Cleveland. He got the win in that game, and in fact, cranked out four straight wins, and won six of his last seven decisions in 2008.

Frankie was back! Or was he?

In 2009 he spent the entire season with the Twins, but to say it was a rocky season would be an understatement. His walk rate shot up to 4.3 per nine innings, his home run rate skied to 1.4 per nine innings, and his WHIP rose to an ugly 1.551. All of which added up to a 5-13 record and a 5.80 ERA. A forgettable campaign to say the least.

That winter, Liriano returned to his native Dominican Republic to play in their winter league. It was thought that he needed more innings under his belt to get back to the kind of specific, repeatable mechanics it takes to succeed in the big leagues. Frankie was dominant in winter ball, helping propel his club to a league championship. Yet again, expectations were high for the lefty heading into the 2010 Twins season.

Once more, however, it was a season of streaks for Liriano. He started out hot, and through mid-May was one of the top pitchers in baseball. From that point through the All Star break, he stumbled mightily, dropping five of his seven decisions. After the break, he came back strong, regaining his form and his confidence and reeling off four straight wins, and wins in six of his next 10 starts. He didn't take a loss until September 19th, but lost his last three starts to close out the season.

He was fifth in the AL in strikeouts, posted the lowest home run rate of his career, and even finished 11th in the AL Cy Young balloting. It wasn't a perfect season, but once again, there were hopes that he had turned a corner and was prepared to become a front-line starter for the Twins.

A rough start to 2011 challenged those hopes however, and despite throwing his first career no-hitter against the White Sox on May 3rd, 2011 became yet another sub-par season for Liriano. Once again, his walk rate was at 5 per nine innings, his WHIP was pushing the 1.5 mark and his strikeout rate dropped by nearly two per game. After experiencing some shoulder soreness in late August, Liriano was shut down and spent the rest of the 2011 season resting and rehabbing.

Which brings us to 2012. After another disastrous April and losing five of his first six starts, there was talk of sending Liriano to the minor leagues to work on his game. Due to his service time, however, Liriano had the option to decline such a move and did just so. Instead, he was shipped to the bullpen from whence he made five appearances over the course of May.

On May 30th, the Twins were forced by injuries to bring him back to the starting rotation and were rewarded with six scoreless innings from Liriano in that first start. Since then, Liriano has posted a 2.83 ERA, kept his walk rate under four, has a strikeout rate over 10 and has his WHIP back down to 1.02.

In short, he's been fantastic. Both manager Ron Gardenhire and his fellow teammates cite an increase in confidence and ability to keep the ball down in the zone as the reasons for his improved performance.

Whatever it is, it has the Twins in an interesting position. Liriano is a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. If the Twins were to offer him a contract for 2013, it's speculated it would have to be at a minimum of $12 million to qualify for draft pick compensation. If Liriano were to be able to consistently pitch at his current level, that would be a more than reasonable price.

But that's a big “if”. Liriano's history has been a long string of hot-streaks followed by periods of utterly befuddling play. Can they afford to invest $12+ million in a guy who's shown no ability to sustain his level of play throughout an entire major league season? And would another team be willing to invest more?

That's why scouts were swarming Friday night to watch as Liriano struck out a career-high 15 batters, and still managed to take the loss - a rather appropriate microcosm of Frankie's career, don't you think? Those scouts had to like what they saw from Liriano, and given the reasonable amount of money he's owed, perhaps a team could be persuaded to part with a prospect-package that could help the Twins not only now, but going forward as well.

If the Twins hang on to Liriano for the rest of 2012, offer him a qualifying contract for 2013, and lose him to another team, they would be compensated with a draft pick. But whatever player they use that pick on, likely wouldn't be available to help the team for 3-5 years, if at all.

So if you're GM Terry Ryan, what do you do? Trade Liriano and hope the players you get in return are more stable in their performance? Hold on to Liriano and try to sign him to a short-term contract to minimize the club's risk and accept a compensatory pick if he doesn't agree to that deal? Or try to sign him to a longer-term contract and hope that this time, he really has turned the corner and figured things out?

Decisions like this one can have a significant impact on a club's long-term ability to compete, which will make the next two-and-a-half weeks until the July 31st trading deadline interesting and important.

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