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Updated: November 19th, 2011 3:56pm
Twins hope winter ball will spark Liriano; Blackburn 'feels great'

Twins hope winter ball will spark Liriano; Blackburn 'feels great'

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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By agreeing to terms with free agents Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit over the past week, the Minnesota Twins have taken the initial steps to improving an offense and an infield defense that ranked among the league's worst in 2011.

As for fixing the pitching staff and bullpen, activity has been slower. A report surfaced last week that the Twins were among 13 teams sniffing around on left-hander Mark Buehrle, but indications at this point are that general manager Terry Ryan will not make a blockbuster addition to the pitching staff.

That could change, as the Twins likely do still have two fistfuls of money to spend this offseason, but the front office and field staff are hoping the team's ace from 2010 can re-emerge.

After striking out 201 batters in 191 2/3 innings in 2010 with a 3.62 ERA that was actually inflated due to some bad luck, left-hander Francisco Liriano took at least two steps back in 2011.

Liriano posted a 5.09 ERA with 112 strikeouts and 75 walks -- nearly twice as many per inning than in 2010 -- in only 134 1/3 innings, and he landed on the disabled list twice with shoulder discomfort.

In order to better prepare Liriano for a full season in 2012, the Twins will send him out for a half season of winter ball in the Dominican Winter League.

"He broke down a couple times this year, and finally his last time he did he said to me and the trainers and the doctors that his shoulder has been sore a little bit all year," pitching coach Rick Anderson said in an interview on 1500 ESPN's "Talkin' Twins" hot stove show last week. "So we've got him on a different conditioning, strengthening exercises, and he's going to pitch the second half of winter ball and get about 25, 30 innings, and he should come back a better pitcher.

"As you saw with Franky, he wasn't the same this year. He was forcing stuff up there, and although he had the no-hitter (in Chicago), he still wasn't that sharp in the no-hitter. So we expect him back. He has a chance to be a top-of-the-line, number-one or number-two starter. And that's really what we need."

Liriano last pitched in the Dominican Winter League prior to the 2010 season, where he dominated over 50+ innings while showing increased velocity (94-95 mph fastball) for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006.

Due in part to the heavy workload in 2010, Liriano didn't pitch in winter ball prior to last season. Instead, he threw a series of bullpen sessions leading up to spring training that triggered some shoulder discomfort in Fort Myers.

"And that really set him behind everybody," Anderson said. "That really backed him up a lot, and then it was hurry up and catch up for the season. He really wasn't the same this season from day one that we've seen before."

Everything dropped off for Liriano in 2011 -- his fastball velocity fell 2 mph, his first-pitch strike percentage dropped from 62% to 49%, and he threw fewer pitches in the zone (39.7%) than at any point in his career.

"Last year I believe he was injured more than maybe we even wanted to admit, but he only threw 134 innings last year," Ryan said. "That's not what we're looking for out of one of our top starters.

"I go back to when he was fantastic -- he threw his fastball over the plate and pitched ahead much more frequently and didn't rely on that power slider quite as much. There's a guy that he's strong enough, he's big enough and he's got three pitches. ... But he isn't going to do anything correctly until he starts throwing that fastball over the plate where he wants it."

The Twins are hoping 30 innings of winter ball for Liriano will help provide momentum, and better conditioning, heading into a contract season. Liriano is eligible for free agency next offseason.

Time will tell.

Blackburn progressing after surgery

Another pitcher the Twins would like to return to his previous form is Nick Blackburn, who underwent surgery at the end of September on his upper-forearm. The procedure was designed to help relieve pain from Radial Tunnel Syndrome, which caused a decompression of the radial nerve in Blackburn's right arm.

The surgery called for approximately six to eight weeks of rehab before Blackburn could start throwing again.

"Everything feels great and is going as planned," Blackburn said in a text message last week. "My throwing program typically starts a little before Christmas and for now I should start that on time."

The sinkerballer induced a career-best 54% groundballs in 2011, but he posted a 4.49 ERA while allowing 183 hits in only 148 1/3 innings. Blackburn also walked a career-high 3.3 batters per nine innings.

After posting a 4.04 ERA with only 80 walks issued in 399 innings from 2008 to 2009, Blackburn has suffered through back-to-back injury-plagued, ineffective seasons.

He was hoping offseason elbow clean-up surgery in October, 2010 would help him return to form in 2011, and that notion came to fruition initially, as Blackburn posted a 3.15 ERA over his first 15 starts. But the wheels came off after that, and the forearm discomfort built.

Depending on what moves the Twins make this offseason, Blackburn will head into spring training battling for one of the final two rotation slots.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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