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February 23, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Curious Case of Francisco Liriano

by Jay Jaffe

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Earlier this month, the Twins made waves via a Minneapolis Star Tribune report stating that team officials are open to the possibility of trading Francisco Liriano. The 27-year-old lefty is coming off a strong 2010 season, and the Twins feel that his value may never be higher, that he's getting too expensive for their tastes, and that their rotation appears to be stocked well enough to withstand his departure. If those assumptions are true, it may be sensible to deal him, but a closer look at the situation suggests flaws in that reasoning.

To appreciate where the Twins and the enigmatic lefty find themselves, one has to go back to his rookie season. Acquired in the same heist which brought Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser from the Giants in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski, Liriano burst onto the major-league scene in 2006 following a cup of coffee in late 2005. He broke camp as a reliever and was shining in that capacity before joining the rotation in mid-May; within two months, he netted a spot on the AL All-Star team. In all, Liriano posted a 2.16 ERA and whiffed 10.7 hitters per nine in 121 innings, good enough to rank third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Alas, his season was shortened by elbow woes; Liriano pitched just twice after July 28, and by the time the award voting was announced, he had undergone Tommy John surgery, which cost him all of the 2007 campaign.

Liriano made just 14 big-league starts in 2008, though not due to inactivity. Rather, the Twins farmed him out after three ugly April starts (10.1 innings, 11.32 ERA), letting him fester in Triple-A long enough to rack up 18 starts in three months before returning to the bigs in August. Despite a strong 11-start showing (2.74 ERA, 8.2 K/9) in August and September, Liriano was absolutely dreadful the following season, tagged for a 5.80 ERA in 136 2/3 innings due to elevated walk and homer rates. He spent three weeks on the disabled list late in the year due to elbow fatigue, and was confined to the bullpen when he returned.

All of which made his 2010 rebound that much more remarkable. After three years in the wilderness, Liriano put up a 3.62 ERA, struck out 201 hitters in 191 2/3 innings, and ranked among the majors' elite in several key categories. Among ERA qualifiers, his 9.4 strikeouts per nine ranked fifth, his 0.4 home runs per nine ranked fourth, and his 55.9 percent ground-ball rate ranked eighth. That combination was good enough for a 3.02 SIERA, which ranked third behind only Roy Halladay and Jered Weaver, but a .335 BABIP—virtually tied for the majors' second-highest—fluffed his ERA up considerably.

You'd think his season would be enough to make the Twins happy, but nooo. In fact, the past five years have been marked by numerous occasions in which the team's frustration with the pitcher has come to light. From a spring 2008 article on MLB.com:

The communication problems between the two sides began before the pitcher was shut down with his elbow problems during the 2006 season. Liriano repeatedly told the Twins that he wasn't feeling anything in his elbow and he was fine to continue pitching.

The team even had pitcher Johan Santana speak to Liriano to make sure that the language barrier wasn't getting in the way of the pitcher's message. But Santana reported back that Liriano said he was doing just fine.

That message changed after the pitcher was officially shut down for the year. Liriano told reporters that his elbow was hurting the entire time.

The Twins hoped Liriano, 24, might have learned his lesson about being honest during his long tedious recovery. But so far that hasn't exactly been the case.

That same article found manager Ron Gardenhire publicly questioning Liriano's progress in rehabbing from surgery, citing a communication breakdown the previous fall in the Instructional League. Less than two weeks later, the pitcher farmed out to begin the season, with Nick Blackburn taking his spot in the rotation. Liriano made one start in High-A and another in Triple-A before joining the Twins on April 13 for the three-start stint which preceded his further minor-league exile. Meanwhile, Livan Hernandez filled a rotation spot and played the part of the palooka, getting tagged for a 5.48 ERA through the end of July before hitting the waiver wire. The Twins wound up losing the AL Central via a Game 163 play-in, though whether more considerate handling of Liriano could have helped avoid that fate is an exercise left to the reader.

When Liriano missed a turn in August 2009 shortly before going on the disabled list, those communication issues regarding the condition of his arm were again raised. They've resurfaced again in a slightly different guise in the wake of the pitcher being scratched from his first scheduled throwing session of the spring due to shoulder soreness. A day after the scratch, pitching coach Rick Anderson revealed that Liriano had not kept up with his shoulder strengthening exercises during the winter. That contradicted an earlier report in which general manager Bill Smith said both that the pitcher was keeping up with his exercise and that the team's desire for him to forgo winter ball was because "It was time for him to rest, and he understood that." Mixed message much? Fortunately, an MRI revealed no structural damage in his shoulder, but the team's relationship with its star pitcher now looks that much more frayed.

In any event, the Twins are paying Liriano $4.3 million via a one-year deal struck before the two sides went before an arbitration panel; the pitcher is in his second year of arb eligibility and can become a free agent after the 2012 season, barring an extension. According to the Star Tribune's Joe Christensen, whose initial report suggested the possibility of a trade, discussions regarding a longer-term deal broke off once Liriano asked for a three-year, $39 million extension (a figure that was later backtracked somewhat), yielding a four-year package in the ballpark of the Marlins' Josh Johnson and the Brewers' Zack Greinke. Christensen cited the Twins' concerns about Liriano's injury history, his violent delivery, and his heavy reliance on a slider as reasons for their reservations, while also noting the team's relative glut of starting pitchers.

The irony is that the Twins just created this glut for themselves by re-signing Carl Pavano, a pitcher with less upside and an even spottier injury history than Liriano, to a two-year, $16.5 million deal. Apparently, Smith and company prefer the rather mundane unpredictability over Pavano to the more volatile unpredictability of Liriano, this at a time when the team is suddenly eager to rein in their payroll after bumping it up 41 percent higher than in 2009—just above the $100 million mark—as they moved into brand-new Target Field.

What's even more striking is that Pavano is the type of pitch-to-contact strike thrower which the Twins have demonstrated the ability to mint at will, while Liriano is the exception, a pitcher who misses plenty of bats. Compare the candidates for the team's rotation both in terms of 2010 performance and 2011 PECOTAs, the latter of which is in the three right-hand columns:

Pitcher

Age

ERA

IP

HR/9

BB/9

K/9

SIERA

 

IP

ERA

WARP

Francisco Liriano

26

3.62

191.7

0.4

2.7

9.4

3.02

 

162.0

3.75

3.6

Scott Baker

28

4.49

170.3

1.2

2.3

7.8

3.69

 

182.7

3.88

3.6

Kevin Slowey

26

4.45

155.7

1.2

1.7

6.7

4.14

 

152.7

4.00

3.0

Brian Duensing

27

2.62

130.7

0.8

2.1

5.4

4.22

 

146.7

4.37

1.6

Carl Pavano

34

3.75

221.0

1.0

1.4

4.8

4.15

 

102.7

4.22

1.5

Nick Blackburn

28

5.42

161.0

1.4

2.2

3.8

4.83

 

174.0

4.64

1.8

Those PECOTA-based innings and WARP totals are unadjusted for playing time; the system doesn't see Liriano's age and injury history as nearly so likely to prevent him from throwing a good number of innings as it does for Pavano. In fact, Liriano's weighted mean of 3.6 WARP is tied for 35th among a pretty fair group of pitchers: Baker, John Danks, Max Scherzer, Dan Hudson, and Chris Carpenter. The latest iteration of our Twins depth charts, which contains adjustments for playing time and run environment, still shows Liriano (projected at 185 innings) with roughly twice the value of Pavano (at 195 innings), 2.9 to 1.6—at about half the salary. At $5 million per win, Liriano's performance would be worth $14.5 million, Pavano's worth $8.0. Which of those returns makes more sense for a cost-conscious team?

Furthering the glut, at least from a numbers standpoint, is Kyle Gibson, the team's top pitching prospect. The 2009 first-round pick enjoyed a strong professional debut in 2010, posting a 2.96 ERA in 152 innings split between High-, Double-, and Triple-A, with 93 of those innings coming at the middle level. As Kevin Goldstein reports, Gibson is another command-and-control type who pounds the strike zone with an average-velocity fastball; his ability to miss bats declined as he climbed the ladder, and he's short on projection, a mid-rotation starter in the making, but one who's already near his ceiling. PECOTA forecasts him for a respectable 4.24 ERA, a fairly middling 6.0 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9, and a 49 percent GB%. That's a pretty solid forecast for a pitcher with just 15 innings of Triple-A work under his belt, but neither the stats nor the scouting reports portend an electrifying front-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Aside from Liriano in 2009, that's something the Twins have lacked since trading two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana to the Mets in February 2008, in a similarly pre-emptive attempt to avoid losing a pitcher to free agency, one that didn't work out too well. After fielding offers for a southpaw with a much cleaner bill of health and higher level of accomplishment than Liriano, the Twins settled for a four-player return from the Mets, but none provided much value to the team, and only one of the quartet remains in the organization. Carlos Gomez hit a meager .248/.293/.352 in two years in Minnesota before being dealt to Milwaukee for J.J. Hardy, who after a decent year for the Twins was flipped to Baltimore. Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey combined for just 23 innings in Minnesota before moving along to other organizations and fading even further into oblivion. Deolis Guera went 2-13 with a 6.36 ERA split between Double-A and Triple-A last year; while he's just 21 years old and may still have a future, he didn't rank among the team's top 20 prospects in our recent evaluation.

So far that's a big sack of nothing for an ace, and while Santana hasn't exactly lived happily ever after since signing his long-term extension with the Mets, the Twins would have been better off taking their chances with Santana in 2008 and collecting the draft picks. The difference is that Santana had just one year to go on his deal, where Liriano has two. Recent deals involving Greinke (who has two years of club control still to go) and Matt Garza (who has three years to go) provided stronger yields, and even the trade of Shaun Marcum (two years of club control) netted a blue-chip prospect in Brett Lawrie. One would expect the Twins to have learned from their mistakes and the successes of others; putting Liriano on the market now appears to indicate exactly that. If they're going to deal him, it would make more sense to do so before the start of the season rather than during it, since trading such a high-wattage hurler while the team is battling for a playoff spot is less likely to improve their 2011 chances than it is to enrich their farm system.

On the other hand, it's possible that the Twins are mistaken in terms of Liriano's value being at its highest. That 3.02 SIERA, which is founded on repeatable skills and not luck, is Cy Young territory. Of the last 10 Cy Young winners, nine of them have posted SIERAs between 2.73 and 3.19, with AL 2008 winner Cliff Lee's 3.57 the only outlier (that 3.19 mark belonged to 2010 AL winner Felix Hernandez). Given another year with a little extra good luck to go with his skills, Liriano could bring home hardware that would enhance his value in trade while quelling doubts about his durability.

In the end, one can't escape the feeling that the Twins are shooting themselves in the foot again, not only in terms of a strikeouts-are-fascist organizational philosophy but also in terms of this ongoing conflict between pitcher and team. As with the Yankees and Joba Chamberlain, the Twins have expended a good deal of energy publicly chipping away at the market value of a talented young pitcher, and while it may keep Liriano's salary down in the near term, it can only subvert their efforts towards a strong return when they do decide to deal him.

Beyond that, there's little reason to believe that Liriano has peaked, that he won't deliver value for the Twins far in excess of Pavano and the other members of the Twins' rotation, or that the Twins can't afford him. Under the right circumstances—an impressive enough return in blood and treasure, particularly if the team is out of the playoff hunt—it may still make sense to deal him in 2011, but right now, the case to do so is less than compelling.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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