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August 2, 2017

Transaction Analysis

Liriano Learning on the Fly

by Matthew Trueblood, Wilson Karaman and Gideon Turk


IN THIS ISSUE

American League

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Acquired LHP Francisco Liriano and cash considerations from Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for OF-R Teoscar Hernandez and OF-L Nori Aoki. [7/31]

It wasn't so long ago, if you look at the big picture, that Andrew Miller was a starter on the very brink of becoming a full-fledged prospect bust. Brad Hand was a swing man until the start of 2016, and the split between Hand as a starter and as a reliever was stark even when he was doing both jobs. Zach Britton ran out of options as the Orioles tried to bring him along as a starter, and ended up stuck in the bullpen just to avoid being waived. The point: the best left-handed relief aces in baseball are mostly failed (or simply stalled) starters.

Liriano is just as good a candidate to move to the bullpen and become a dominant weapon as Miller, Hand, or Birtton ever were. He’s always struggled with command, but sometimes pitchers find much, much better command when they move into a relief role. There’s less pressure to modulate effort, which can (counter-intuitively, maybe, but nonetheless) result in better mechanics. He’s also, over the past two years, struggled against right-handed batters, but he can be somewhat shielded from them in the role into which the Astros will place him.

He’s succeeded because he’s had a very good, hard sinker, a sharp slider, and a usable changeup. That’s as much as Miller, Hand, and Britton each took with them across the divide between starting and relief, and it's been more than enough. Of course, it’s impossible to predict how any one individual will handle a transition like this. That’s why most teams in the Astros’ position would be much more inclined to pursue a pitcher who’s already made such a move.

The Cubs put Justin Wilson, who's been a reliever for years, at the top of their wish list. The Dodgers balked at the Orioles’ and Padres’ asking prices for Britton and Hand, but still chose experienced relievers (Tonys Watson and Cingrani) as they look to build their own lefty super reliever. Jeff Luhnow doesn't think that way. One reason why he's so reticent to deal top prospects is that he tends to see the potential upside in uncertain situations, rather than the risk. That's why, despite some mounting injury concerns on the positional side, he was willing to deal from his big-league outfield depth to acquire Liriano. It's also why Liriano appealed more to him, in the end, than to his fellow executives.

Liriano’s had a lower arm slot this year, and it’s messed with the movement on his sinker. In July, he went to his four-seamer much more than he has since before he joined the Pirates, trying to attack hitters differently. The results were mixed, but that approach could serve him well in the bullpen—and on the Astros, a team focused on using the high four-seamer to get outs.

Always considered a frustrating but immensely talented pitcher, Liriano has seemed like a candidate for this move since his mid-20s—even, sometimes, despite long stretches of success as a starter. It won't necessarily work, and the Astros didn't get a total steal here, but it's not hard to see what the Houston front office was thinking. The market price for top-end relievers was much higher than the price they paid for Liriano, and the gap between the expected performance of those guys and the expected performance of Liriano isn't necessarily that different. —Matthew Trueblood

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Acquired OF-R Teoscar Hernandez and OF-L Nori Aoki from Houston Astros in exchange for LHP Francisco Liriano and cash considerations. [7/31]

Hernandez is one of those jacks of most trades, with a bunch of big-league caliber tools that are pretty well actualized, yet probably not quite enough of them to profile as an average regular at the highest level. He’ll be 25 in October, and the body has sauntered into maturity with a bit more power to spare at marginal expense to the plus run times he once logged in the halcyon days of High-A. He’s still an above-average runner, though his basestealing proficiency—never a strong suit—has stagnated.

He’s always shown a capable, versatile glove, and the wheels are still adequate for center field. There’s enough velocity and carry on his balls to throw a 55 on the arm, too. So we’ve already checked most of the “fourth outfielder” boxes, and there’s just enough potential with the stick that we can tease a second-division projection. He’s taken to a more patient approach at Triple-A this season, with the deeper counts resulting in more walks, whiffs, and isolated power. He’s always been adept at putting the ball in the air, and it will be interesting to see if Toronto is able to extract additional power, as they have for other hitters of late.

The raw can push solid-average, so there’s some material to work with. He can struggle at times to stay balanced, and this has manifested consistently in difficulties handling changeups and other speed-changing sequences from opposite-handed pitching in particular. His reverse-spit tendencies as a right-handed hitter make him somewhat of a misfit extra outfielder, but the sum of the parts adds up to just that for projection purposes. —Wilson Karaman

For the Blue Jays, this move is a lesson in how to make something from nothing. Liriano has not been good this season, but they were able to use his success against lefties and past performance in the bullpen, combined with their ability to eat cash in a deal, to acquire a legitimate prospect in Hernandez. To do that, though, they also needed to acquire Aoki and the remaining $1.89 million on his contract. The 35-year-old Aoki is still under team control for 2018 via arbitration, but that may not matter to the Blue Jays.

His decline phase has been in full gear for the past two years, with his TAv going from .272 in 2015 to .234 this season. Combine that with his below-average fielding and his diminishing value on the basepaths, and he seems to be a non-tender candidate this winter. However, before that he may not even make it through the next two months with this team. Kevin Pillar, Ezequiel Carrera, Jose Bautista, and Steve Pearce currently occupy the outfield spots for the Blue Jays, and finding room for Aoki may be hard. The team could decide to just eat his salary outright and release him, but if he stays he’ll likely find himself with a severely diminished role. —Gideon Turk

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Wilson's other articles. You can contact Wilson by clicking here

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