Mackey: It's time to start talking about a Liriano contract extension
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Lost in the shuffle of an offensive barrage in Tuesday night's 10-3 win over Kansas City was yet another solid start by Francisco Liriano.
The lefty allowed only two earned runs on seven hits in seven innings, while striking out four and walking nobody. With that performance, Liriano notched his 13th win of the season -- a career high -- and lowered his ERA to 3.24.
As mentioned previously, Liriano has been really, really good this season -- a lot better than most people even realize.
And it's possible that with some better luck and better defensive performances behind him Liriano would be in the mix for the American League Cy Young Award.
Pardon the stat-intensive interruption here, but Liriano has been victimized this season by a .344 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Some of it his fault, but a lot of it is bad luck. To put it in perspective, Liriano allowed a .313 BABIP in 2008 and a .324 BABIP in 2009 -- two seasons where he was much more hittable and threw far inferior "stuff" than he does currently.
To illustrate further, Nick Blackburn's BABIP against this season is .320.
To his credit, Blackburn has turned things around recently, but on what planet is Liriano being hit harder than Blackburn?
Well, he isn't, as anyone with an HD TV can see. It's bad luck.
We can also compare Liriano's .344 BABIP to a guy like Oakland's Trevor Cahill, who has held opponents to a .244 BABIP this season. Is Cahill really that much nastier than Liriano? Absolutely not. But he's certainly luckier this season.
Twins officials have noticed several other positive signs about Liriano this season, aside from the disappearing slider, high strikeout totals and low ERA. He has matured as a person, he has gained exponentially more confidence, and he is more transparent when it comes to his health.
"I like the fact that he's opened up more," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He actually conversates a lot more with us, lets us know how he's feeling. When he had the dead arm (in late August), he told us, rather than try to pitch through it. I like that part, that he's learned to just say, 'This is what I'm feeling,' and kind of open up a little more and communicate better with (pitching coach Rick Anderson) and myself. That helps, because now we know. The stuff is great and all that, and we can protect him a little bit, but he's grown up an awful lot since that injury."
Of course, Gardenhire is referring to Liriano's 2006 Tommy John surgery -- a procedure that essentially set him back four years, including a lost 2007 season and ineffective campaigns in 2008 and 2009.
But despite posting a 5.80 ERA, 4.87 FIP and allowing career highs in walks (4.3 per nine innings) and home runs (21), Twins officials felt like Liriano's 2009 campaign was also a success in some ways, because he made it through the entire year without injury.
"It's those years coming off (surgery), you see all kinds of years coming off of this elbow (injury)," Gardenhire said. "Some people say it takes two years to come back fully from that elbow thing. The first year is trial basis and you still don't trust it. And then the second year you start feeling better and better, and it gets better as it goes. And I think we're there.
"We just put (2009) off as one of those wild ones and went from there. He had a great winter ball, and I think that's where he got his confidence up. And he went right into spring training, and we were like, 'This is going to be pretty fun.'"
Liriano himself requested to play winter ball, where he helped Escogido win the Domincan Winter League championship in January.
After striking out 64 and walking only seven in approximately 50 winter ball innings, Liriano showed up to spring training in Fort Myers with a renewed sense of confidence. He also showed up in great physical shape, knowing 2010 was a huge year on multiple fronts.
"I think it helped me a lot," Liriano said about winter ball, "because I had a bad year last year. So I just went back home and tried to get ready for spring training and show that I was at least trying to make the big leagues. I came into spring training trying to make the team. I think I did my job, and they gave me an opportunity."
It's funny to hear Liriano talk about trying to make the 25-man roster, but in reality that's the battle he was fighting back in March. Sure, he pitched lights-out in the Dominican, but the Twins eventually wanted him to prove it against big league hitters. And if that meant sending him to Triple-A to start the season, so be it.
Instead, Liriano carried over his 93-94 mph fastball and biting slider into Fort Myers, then twirled three consecutive scoreless starts in late April to show that he not only belonged in the big leagues, but that he was back near the form that made him a phenom in 2006.
Fast forward to the present. After 172 1/3 solid, healthy innings by the 26-year-old lefty, it's fair to wonder when the Twins and Liriano -- who said on Tuesday "I think this is just the beginning for me," when talking about his success this season -- might start discussing a long-term contract extension.
General manager Bill Smith and company keep a tight seal when it comes to discussing extensions and negotiations -- mum is the word so far -- but it doesn't take Dick Tracy to figure out Liriano is reaching that point in his Twins tenure.
Comparable scenarios in recent Twins history:
2010: Nick Blackburn signed a four-year, $14 million deal heading into his age 28 season after successful performances in 2008 and 2009. The deal covers all three years of arbitration from 2011-2013.
2009: Scott Baker signed a four-year, $15.25 million deal heading into his age 27 season, wiping out three years of arbitration and one year of free agency.
2005: Johan Santana signed a four-year, $39.75 million deal heading into his age 26 season, covering his last two years of arbitration and first two years of free agency.
2002: Joe Mays signed a four-year, $20 million deal heading into his age 26 season and first year of arbitration.
2001: Eric Milton signed a four-year, $21 million deal heading into his age 25 season and first year of arbitration.
Notice the trends: All five of these deals are four-year contracts, and all of them came between the ages of 25-28 during a player's third, fourth or fifth season.
Liriano, who earned $1.6 million this year by avoiding arbitration, will turn 27 years old in October, he will be arbitration-eligible again for two more years (think Santana), and he has certainly pitched well enough and stayed healthy enough in 2010 to warrant an extension.
Looking at Liriano's potential market value, the contracts recently signed by Florida's Josh Johnson, Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo and Toronto's Ricky Romero likely provide the closest comparisons.
Johnson, 26, signed a four-year, $39 million deal in January, which took care of his final two years of arbitration, as well as his first two years of free agency. Johnson previously earned $1.4 million through arbitration in 2009, similar to Liriano this year.
Gallardo, 24, signed a five-year, $30.1 million deal earlier this season, knocking out all three years of arbitration, plus his first two years of free agency (the fifth year is actually a $15 million club option).
Romero, 25, signed a five-year, $30 million extension in August, covering one year of minimum-salary, three years of arbitration, and one year of free agency.
Liriano is slightly older than Gallardo and Romero, and he's further along in arbitration as well. Johnson's profile is more similar, although he's been one of the league's most durable and elite starters for two seasons now.
A four- or five-year deal worth an average of $7-9 million per year is likely the going rate for Liriano. A four- or five-year deal would also provide security for Liriano, in case of another injury, and it would allow him to pursue an even bigger contract while still in his prime at age 31 or 32.
Any potential risks for the Twins -- durability, consistency, or Liriano simply proving he can string together back-to-back solid seasons first -- are trumped by the upside of locking up a pitcher still on the rise who has a chance to be one of the top five or ten starters in baseball for the next few years.
The Twins have said nothing publicly about a Liriano potential extension, and they likely won't. They'll also be dealing with other major decisions, namely Carl Pavano.
But history -- and Liriano's dominating 2010 performance -- tells us we should keep our eyes peeled this offseason.