What to do with Liriano

Since returning from his brief banishment to the bullpen, Francisco Liriano has had a outstanding run of success, as he’s struck out 4o in 37 innings while allowing a .160 opponent’s batting average, walking 14, and producing a 2.41 ERA. He’s looked fantastic and like a completely different pitcher from the beginning of the season.

As most fans know, Liriano will be a free agent at the end of the season. The question now becomes should the Twins trade Liriano at his highest value, try and extend him, or wait to try and get compensation picks after the season? One thing to consider first is just how bad the Twins rotation has been overall this season, because that problem almost certainly means that they are unlikely to go to the postseason, even in the weak AL Central.

As Dan Szymborski has written over at ESPN (unfortunately, it’s insider-only), the Twins currently, by ERA+, have the worst rotation since 1950 and they are plenty deserving of that placement at 66.3. There is a reason this is a 30-44 team. Even with the bullpen included, which overall has been solid, their ERA+ is 79. Liriano is their only strikeout pitcher–after him, Liam Hendricks’ K/9 is the best of the starters at 5.8. Wow. Batters have hit .307/.359/.518 off Minnesota starters this year, which makes them all at about a Robinson Cano or Miguel Cabrera level this year. Wednesday’s 12-5 mess against the White Sox is just the latest incarnation–the Twins can score decently enough, but their pitching is simply atrocious. They aren’t a contending team, but this seems to be something Terry Ryan recognizes and he does seem willing to trade Liriano if the right offer comes.

So, if that means they should consider trading Liriano, what would the interest level be? Buster Olney (again, behind the Insider wall) of ESPN has broken down the market for Liriano. Rival talent evaluators have had things like this to say:

“He is very risky to me as a starting pitcher. I wouldn’t have interest — if you are going to trade prospects, you need certainty that the player you are getting is an upgrade, and Liriano’s inconsistency creates uncertainty. Simply put, there will be better alternatives on the market. However, I think he has excellent value — if he were up for it — as a shutdown situational left-handed reliever. This year, left-handed hitters are 9-for-58 (.155 AVG/.436 OPS) with six walks versus 22 strikeouts” This NL evaluator concluded that Liriano was a “major risk.”

A AL scout suggested that Liriano could actually be less risky than someone like former Twin Matt Garza, as the “risk seems really limited with Liriano considering your committment is less than a year. Because of the inconsistent performance, you’d have to think he’d bring significantly less than Garza in a trade, unless he can pitch this way straight through the deadline and continue to build value.” A different AL scout was much more blunt is his assessment, saying that “Liriano is a risk, with some reward. He was someone the Twins would have let go for sure a couple of weeks ago. Garza has much less risk and much more value. I think the Twins really don’t want Liriano back unless he really goes off the rest of the year. Garza has many more suitors, and the Cubs are happy to have him back.”

Liriano has been, by any measure, much better in June. He’s had a 8.9 K/9 rate, a 3.45 BB/9 rate, a 25% K percentage, a 2.84 FIP and a 3.26 xFIP. But here’s probably what those scouts or teams considering Liriano know: last June, he was quite similar. He had a 10.27 K/9 rate, a 2.66 BB/9 rate, a 28.4% K percentage, a 2.18 FIP and a 2.69 xFIP. He was actually better last June. The problem, as Twins fans know, is that he was bad or worst every other month last year and the end of the season results (5.09 ERA, 4.54 FIP, 4.52 xFIP, 7.5 K/9, 5.05 BB/9) reflected it.

Sure, there are other things. His velocity is up from last year (to 92.7 MPH on his average fastball), but that’s not all that meaningful when his fastball is a weak pitch for him regardless of velocity–his slider is what matters. Can Liriano be the pitcher from 2010, who had a 2.66 FIP/2.95 xFIP and 6.0 fWAR? Clearly he still can for months at a time, but that’s precisely why teams will wait or offer less. Thus, if the Twins want real value for Liriano, they probably need to keep letting him pitch and hope for the best results. If he flops in July, they may have to take low value in the trade market for him.

If Liriano has a season as bad as last year, he won’t be worth much on the free agent market. The Twins could offer him arbitration, but there is no guarantee under the new rules of what compensation they will get if he signs with another team, as Type A and B free agent compensation will be abolished in favor of a system based on contract size. If the Twins can’t trade him–either because offers are sufficient or interest is low because Liriano reverts to being out of control–they may want to go ahead and offer him a one-year, incentive-laden deal for 2013. I realize the Twins are unlikely to do so, but I do believe Liriano still possesses value–especially on a team like the Twins who have a historically bad rotation with no one else around able to strike anyone out.

At the end of the day, this should give the Twins as much pause as anything else. Liriano probably isn’t valued that highly around the league right now and he may potentially be worth more to the Twins this year and the next despite his obvious control issues. He’s the only strikeout pitcher they have and though Kyle Gibson might offer that when he returns from Tommy John surgery by next year, it’s no guarantee (and it wasn’t pre-surgery certain he’d strike out many anyways). I don’t know that the Twins need to try and extend him–at least not beyond next year, but if Liriano does give them another month of success, maybe they should consider it more. Unless, of course, they can get a even better strikeout artist on the trade market. I’m not so sure that will be the case.


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