A Study in Patience: Francisco Liriano

Dan WadeSenior Analyst IJanuary 1, 2010

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 07:  Francisco Liriano #47 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the New York Yankees in Game One of the ALDS during the 2009 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 7, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

According to reports by FoxSports.com’s John Paul Morosi, the Twins are still looking for a middle infielder, which is hardly surprising considering just one member of Game 163 ’s infield (Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto, Orlando Cabrera, and Matt Tolbert) is likely to be in the starting infield next season.

Sure, their projected 2010 infield (Justin Morneau, Alexi Casilla, J.J. Hardy, and Punto) is better in some places, but it’s weaker in others and not much better overall as a result.

What was surprising about Morosi’s report is that the Twins are also in the market for a fifth starter.

I, like many writers, felt like the signing of Carl Pavano would more or less take the Twins out of the running for another arm. After all, the Twins have the top four set and a number of arms waiting to take the fifth spot.

It seems unlikely that Glen Perkins will return to the rotation after his well chronicled falling out with the team over his penchant for hiding injuries, then pitching terribly and blaming the previously undisclosed injury for his abhorrent performance. If he’s even with the organization when camps break in a little over 90 days, I’ll be surprised.

Brian Duensing pitched extremely well down the stretch, far better than anyone thought he would. In his eight starts from Aug. 22 to the end of the season, he went 5-1 with a 2.64 ERA and a WHIP of 1.3 in 47.2 innings. He struck out 31 and induced a ton of ground balls, which helped him pitch around the batters he did allow to reach.

Anthony Swarzak was a reasonably well thought of prospect, and he showed that promise on occasion, but his 2009 was by and large a disappointing effort. His fastball, change, and curveball all ranked as below average pitches, with his curve nearly five runs below average. He could slot in as a fifth starter if the Twins needed him to, and for many teams he’d fill that role decently, but he’s no better than the third best option for the fifth slot.

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Jeff Manship made five starts at the end of the season, none bigger than his first—a five inning, one-run effort against the White Sox on Sept. 1. While he may make a few appearances in spring training, it’s unlikely that he’ll break camp with the team.

Four arms loosely break down into two decent options and two prospects not yet ready. If these were the Twins’ options, a veteran arm might not be a bad idea (though as noted earlier, Jarrod Washburn is not an option worth pursuing).

But there’s another player in this mix, one that has caused fans and prognosticators alike more headaches in the last two seasons than nearly any other player in baseball. The Twins other fifth starter option is none other than Capt. E. Nigma himself: Francisco Liriano.

Starting back in 2006 does more harm than good at this point. Liriano will never be that pitcher again. The question is if he can even be the pitcher who was nearly a win above replacement in 2008 despite throwing just 76 big-league innings.

His return from Tommy John surgery in 2008 was a study in patience as he began the year poorly, improved after being sent down to AAA, then went 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP over 65.2 innings. His nearly 3-1 K/BB ratio was augmented by a low HR rate and a good GB/FB ratio. There’s good reason why the 2009 Baseball Prospectus Annual listed him as likely to be the ace of the staff in the coming season.

His 2009 was a regression par excellence; disappointing to say the least. He gave up three runs or more as many times in April alone as he did in his final 11 starts of 2008.

Cold weather struggles are nothing new for Liriano, so hope that he’d bounce back was far from misplaced, and as May began, it looked like he might be waking up from a winter’s nap that had simply lasted too long. It didn’t take, however, as he continued to struggle to string two good starts together.

But that’s the key: from the press he received, you’d think Liriano was consistently bad, when in fact his problem was consistency. He had a number of very good starts—some amongst the best the Twins got all season, but he also gave them two of their 10 worst starts (for what it’s worth, Glen Perkins was responsible for both the worst and second-worst start the Twins received all year, as well as another in the bottom 10).

It’s not hard to see what happened to Liriano that caused him to falter so badly: his fastball, which has never been his best pitch, fell from 3.6 runs below average to a shockingly bad 25.6 runs below average despite rising in velocity from an average of 90.9 MPH in 2008 to 91.7 in 2009. Not only did the pitch get worse, he threw it more often, making an already bad situation even worse.

Still, even with the limits on his slider placed in order to keep his arm healthy, Liriano has some of the best stuff of any of the potential starters on the staff. His slider is still an above average offering, especially since he’s eliminated the “bad slider” that he was using to set up his good one.

His change, too, is a solid offering, giving him two plus secondary pitches essentially without a foundation. If he can get his fastball back to even the level it was at in 2008 (bad, but closer to average), his two secondary offerings will play that much better, and he should resume his previous effectiveness.

This all brings us to his most recent outings. In his first four starts for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League leave him with a line of 16.2 IP, 11 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 20 K, a 1.08 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP, and especially encouraging are the 20/3 K/BB ratio and the 12.4 K/9.

A grain of salt would be good when reading these numbers, as the DWL includes players at every level of the minors, as well as the majors. He’s induced 18 swinging strikeouts to just two looking, and while hard PFX data isn’t readily available, it seems fair to assume that his fastball isn’t getting hammered and that his slider has plenty of bite.

Counting on Liriano to be the ace of the staff is foolish, but they don’t need an ace—Scott Baker will be much better next year after an already decent 2009. Counting on him to be an innings-eater is foolish, but they don’t need an innings-eater—Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, and Baker all threw 200 innings.

What they are looking for is a fifth starter in the truest sense of the term, someone who can take the ball every fifth day and give the team a chance to win. Liriano can be so much more than that if he reestablishes his foundation such that the Twins don’t have to worry about him giving them a two-inning stinker.

The Twins would be foolish to give up on Liriano at this point, he’s just 26 and has electric stuff when it’s on. Worst case scenario, he struggles again and the Twins go to Duensing or Swarzak; all that’s lost is time and maybe a game or two early in the season. The more likely scenario is that Liriano finds some comfort with his changeup, reestablishes his fastball, and continues to utilize a top-flight slider to post a much better 2010 than his 2009. He’ll never regain 2006’s majesty, but even a return to 2008’s performance will make the Twins a much better team than adding a Jarrod Washburn, Doug Davis, or most any other free agent arm within the Twins’ price range.

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