Mackey: Trading Liriano would be mostly foolish
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Spring training begins in four days, but the Minnesota Twins graced the front page of the sports section a little bit early this year.
As reported last week by the Star Tribune, contract talks between the Twins and Francisco Liriano's agent went nowhere this offseason, and the team is now open to the idea of trading their young southpaw. Possibly to the Yankees or Rangers.
The idea of trading Liriano is a shocker on its own, but contract talks going nowhere between the two sides is also somewhat baffling.
Considering the recent contract extensions signed by Zack Greinke (four years, $38 million), Yovani Gallardo (five years, $30.1 million), Josh Johnson (four years, $39 million) and Ricky Romero (five years, $30 million), the market for Liriano should be pretty well established.
If Liriano's camp expects more than what Greinke and Johnson received, they are certifiably nuts. And if the Twins expect to pay Liriano less than the $6 million per year Gallardo and Romero will earn, they are loony as well. The common ground should lie somewhere between $7-9 million per year.
On the flip side, if the two sides can find common ground, the Twins would benefit by locking Liriano up right now, prior to a big season in 2011 that could skyrocket the lefty's value just one year from free agency.
Liriano would benefit by signing now as well, considering his injury history and the general uncertainty revolving around the longevity of pitchers. Guaranteed money is guaranteed money.
Trading Liriano, however -- with the Twins still within range of contention for the foreseeable future -- should be out of the question, unless A.) the two sides simply cannot find common financial ground, or B.) the Twins see major red flags for future injury issues.
Even with bullpen uncertainty and questions surrounding Justin Morneau, the Twins are built to win right now. And Liriano is the team's best starting pitcher.
Because Liriano doesn't become a free agent until after the 2012 season, the Twins would certainly receive a better haul now via trade than they would next year, but at what cost? Kiss contention in 2011 goodbye. And maybe even in 2012.
That injury history, by the way, has become a lot more distant. Liriano's Tommy John surgery took place more than four years ago.
Since then he has pitched 527 2/3 innings, not including the 50 or so innings he threw in winter ball last year, and has experienced few issues -- some minor forearm swelling in 2009 and maybe a dead-arm period or two along the way.
To be fair, one cause for concern could be Liriano's excessive slider usage. He threw more sliders in 2010 (34%) than every starting pitcher not named Ervin Santana (37%) and Ryan Dempster (35%).
Beyond that, however, it would seem as if Liriano -- and by no means is this scribe a doctor, nor did he stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night -- is much more likely to repeat and/or surpass his 2010 performance than he is to suffer a major injury.
Liriano's lack of "ace make-up" is overblown
If there are 10-15 "aces" in baseball -- let's say Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, C.C. Sabathia, David Price and, oh, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson and maybe even Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jon Lester and, formerly, Johan Santana -- the majority of them are perceived to have a bulldog mentality.
Fierce eyes, rarely leave games early, relish in big-game situations, a fist pump once in a while, etc.
Maybe help an old lady cross the street. Maybe not.
Baseball could even invent a stat for most-bulldoggish pitcher.
Liriano doesn't exactly fit that bulldog mold. He's mellow and soft-spoken, to the point a reporter might miss something if he or she isn't leaning forward when he speaks.
Liriano also sometimes gets butterflies early in games, as his coaching staff and manager will attest to, and as the numbers suggest -- his 5.81 first-inning ERA was his highest, by far, of any inning in 2010.
But Liriano's lack of prototypical ace make-up -- and the fact that he isn't a "staff leader," per se -- doesn't change the fact that he is a damn good pitcher.
And at some point, a line needs to be drawn between pitchers who look the part (say, Mark Buehrle) and pitchers who play the part.
After struggling with his command, velocity and durability in his first two years following Tommy John surgery, Liriano rediscovered his mojo in 2010, adding two miles per hour to his fastball (94 mph average), bite to his slider and dip to his changeup.
He posted a 3.62 ERA and struck out 201 batters while walking only 58 in 191 2/3 innings. Only four other American-League pitchers struck out more batters than Liriano -- Verlander (219), Lester (225), Hernandez (232) and Jered Weaver (233).
Liriano was better than people think last year
A 3.62 ERA and 201 strikeouts is impressive on its own, but those numbers don't tell the entire story of Liriano's 2010 season.
In 31 starts, Liriano gave up zero or one earned run 11 times. And in reality, his ERA was deceptively high, as evidenced -- and don't scoff, baseball traditionalists -- by a .331 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
BABIP takes into account all batted balls, minus home runs and foul balls, and Liriano's .331 mark was the second-highest among all starting pitchers behind only James Shields (.342). Most pitchers fall between .280 and .320, and Liriano's career BABIP was below .310 heading into 2010.
To put that into perspective, of the 16 pitchers with BABIPs higher than .313 last year, 14 of them had ERAs above 4.00.
Liriano posted a sub-4.00 ERA despite getting "hit harder."
Or, perhaps more accurately, despite being unlucky.
Even Jeremy Bonderman (5.56 ERA) posted a .297 BABIP. On what planet did Bonderman get hit "less hard" than Liriano in 2010?
It was luck. And some defense, or lack thereof.
Liriano also posted the league's second-best xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which takes into account only the factors a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks, groundballs and fly balls) -- 3.06, behind only Roy Halladay's 2.92 mark.
His 3.47:1 K/BB ratio ranked fifth in the American League, and his nine home runs allowed were tied for the fewest of any starter in baseball.
Not to mention, Liriano was back to inducing 54% groundballs, which was just shy of his 55% mark in a dominating 2006 season, and far more than the 40% he induced during a rocky 2009 campaign.
As for the notion that Liriano doesn't pitch well in big games, he posted a 2.31 ERA with 41 strikeouts, four walks and zero home runs allowed in 35 innings against playoff teams last year.
He also held the White Sox to three earned runs or fewer four times in five starts, and the Twins won all five of those games.
Yes, the Yankees got the best of Liriano in Game 1 of the ALDS -- the most important game of the season. But arguing that Liriano is doomed in big games because of such an isolated, small sample size is spewing the same foolishness as those who argued that Alex Rodriguez was destined for the same failure after three poor ALDS showings from 2005-2007.
By the way, A-Rod was a monster in the '09 playoffs, belting six home runs and five doubles.
The same goes for Joe Nathan -- as if the fact that Nathan is one of the most dominant closers in baseball history is canceled out by the four earned runs he's given up in 7 2/3 post-season innings with the Twins.
Good regular-season players will almost always eventually perform well in the post-season. It's about sample size. Predicting clutch moments by guys like Gene Larkin and Tony Womack is almost impossible.