As Twins fans we've been clamoring for a #1 starter all year long. Barring a trade for an established guy like Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, or Zack Greinke, this has led to plenty of speculation about trading for "upside" guys like Jonathan Sanchez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Edinson Volquez, or even signing guys like Rich Harden or Erik Bedard. And I'm not opposed to any of those, but lest we forget we do have a potential ace in house.
Yep, Francisco Liriano. I know many fans will roll their eyes, thinking "we've seen what Liriano can do" after such a poor 2011 season. I would dispute that. It's all about innings/injury, if you ask me. I'll show you what I mean:
In 2006 Francisco Liriano burst onto the major league scene fully and was one of the most dominant pitchers many of us have ever seen. Then of course the Twins rushed him back, delaying surgery, and he ended up having to undergo Tommy John surgery. Many wondered if he would ever be the same again, and, well, he hasn't. But that doesn't mean that he hasn't been good.
In 2008 Francisco Liriano returned, and put in a very respectable year for a return year from Tommy John surgery. He posted a 7.93 K/9, 3.91 ERA, and 3.87 FIP. While not the dominant pitcher he once was, he was a very solid pitcher. The problem, in my mind, was that the Twins had him throw 199 innings (minors and majors), in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. That seems extremely high, especially for a guy that had never pitched more than 156.2 innings in a year before. EVER.
So what ensued in 2009? Liriano complained of a dead arm all year long, and posted a year with an 8.03 K/9, but with an ERA of 5.80 and a FIP of 4.87. Obviously some bad luck was at play with that last disparity, but he clearly was not the same pitcher in 2009. Between stints on the DL, Liriano was only able to pitch 136.2 IP. Which, in my mind, would have been a good amount of innings for him to throw in 2008, his first year back from Tommy John surgery, for a guy that hadn't pitched in 2 years and had never thrown even 160 innings in a year. Liriano's velocity still had not returned, and his control was poor all year, two big signs of arm injury, confirmed by his DL stints and his own statements about a "dead arm". Most scouts say that the two greatest signals of injury are velocity and control. Liriano had both.
In 2010, armed with proper rest, Liriano's velocity and effectiveness returned. He did a stint in winter ball and pitched around 50 innings, highly effective innings. He was primed for a big year but many fans were concerned about him wearing down the stretch with such an added load and the fact that he had only pitched 136 innings in 2009. Many called for skipping starts for him or easing him out of games early to keep him fresh for the Twins' stretch run in 2010. The Twins did none of these things. Liriano pitched 191.2 innings (in addition to approximately 50 innings in winter ball), his velocity returned; up to a 93.7MPH average fastball (up from 90.9 and 91.7 the previous two years; all numbers according to FanGraphs pitch type; http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=3201&position=P#pitchtype) and his K rate rose to 9.44K/9 with an ERA of 3.62 and a great 2.62 FIP, among the best in all of baseball, and his control also was significantly better in 2010 as his walk rate dropped from 4.28BB/9 to 2.72 BB/9. He garnered CY award votes and was one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. Still, that innings jump was huge. Liriano essentially pitched twice as many innings in 2010 as he did in 2009. Again, not a prudent jump in innings by the Twins and those monitoring such things.
Fast forward to 2011; Liriano comes into spring training with some nagging injuries, and has another bad year. His velocity and control take a turn for the worse in a big way. He manages to pitch 134.1 innings in between DL stints, but does so with a K/9 that dropped to 7.50, the worst of his career, an ERA of 5.09, and a FIP of 4.54. His walk rate also rose up to 5.02, a career high. And his velocity took a major dip. His average fastball was clocked at 91.8MPH, down roughly 2 MPH from 2010, and almost identical to 2009. His DL stints coupled with a statement from Rick Anderson this week that "Liriano complained of a sore shoulder all year" (http://www.1500espn.com/shows/tompelissero) point once again to a dead arm in 2011. Velocity/control drop. DL stints. And the statements of both Liriano and Rick Anderson. His defense certainly didn't do him any favors in 2011, but it was a poor year for Liriano.
So what does it all mean? In my mind, this:
Francisco Liriano has never ceased having great ability as a pitcher. He simply has been grossly mishandled by the Minnesota Twins over his career so far, chiefly in innings.
2008-First year back from Tommy John; 199 innings. Effective, but lots of innings. Good return campaign.
2009-Dead arm all year, limited to 136 innings after such a jump the year before.
2010-Return, stellar year. But 250 innings, 114 more than he threw in 2009.
2011-Dead arm all year, limited to 134 innings after such a jump the year before.
Talk about a roller coaster. Call me crazy, but I would not have any guy I named "The Franchise" pitch almost 200 innings in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. I would not then, after a "dead arm" year the next year, DOUBLE his innings in a calendar year. A normal trajectory in my mind would have been: 2008-130 innings, 2009-165 innings, 2010/11-200 innings/full workload. Some damage has already been done, but the Twins should attempt to learn from their past mistakes here. Liriano threw 134 innings in 2011. It's not inconceivable--in fact it's probable, in my mind--that Liriano can be effective in 2012. But he should be eased in to a normal transition. That would seem to be a limit of around 170 innings in 2012. This may mean skipping starts periodically throughout the year, or just giving him less innings at a time. Taking him out in a blowout win in the 6th inning, etc. Then an uptick to around 200 innings and a "full workload" in 2013. And that leads me to my next point:
We may have an in-house #1 already. Liriano certainly has the ability, and we have him under team control already. For one more year currently. Sticking with Liriano does not cost us 3-4 top prospects, as any other potential ace candidate would. It only costs us money. If I am the Twins I am looking at the innings and mishandling outlined above and I am gambling that the best is yet to come. This will be Liriano's age 28 season, meaning his prime should be the next 4 seasons. He has not had a "major" injury since 2006, 5 years ago, he's a scarce commodity as a power lefty with great stuff, and the Twins have already invested heavily in him. I would approach him with a 4 year/$40 million deal this offseason and gamble that you can get him right with properly managed inning restrictions. If Liriano has another year like 2010, which again, is not unlikely, he will hit the open market in Free Agency and demand a contract in the range of 4 years/$64 million at least. If he has another year like 2011, which shouldn't happen if his innings are managed effectively, he'd still demand a contract on the open market in the range of 3 years/$20 million at least. There is decent risk/reward to the signings on both Liriano's side and the Twins.
It could be that Liriano and his agent are fully aware of the above innings roller coaster and don't want anything more to do with the Twins and their medical staff after this season, but the Twins should at least look at finding out. Especially when only Scott Baker remains under contract for 2013 of the established/effective starters on the Twins' staff. It could be that we may just have our #1 in the fold already. With so many other needs and a glaring, desperate need for a frontline starter, Liriano is worth the risk.