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Updated: July 29th, 2012 6:42pm
Zulgad: Terry Ryan's choice to deal Francisco Liriano was an easy one

Zulgad: Terry Ryan's choice to deal Francisco Liriano was an easy one

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

No one should be shocked if Denard Span or Justin Morneau finds themselves on the move before baseball's non-waiver trade deadline arrives at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Both have been the subject of trade scuttlebutt in recent weeks and with the Twins sitting at 15 games under .500 only those with non-move clauses written into their contracts should feel safe.

However, reports that have circulated nationally have indicated that Twins general manager Terry Ryan is asking for a large sum in return for Span or Morneau. The price tag for Josh Willingham and his 27 homers likely is even higher.

This makes sense.

Under a new collective bargaining agreement in which pending free agents stand to get you nothing if they walk after serving as a rental player, Span would be a valuable addition. He has a team-friendly contract that will pay him $4.75 million next season, $6.5 million in 2014 and then has a team option at $9 million for 2015.

Morneau hit his 13th home run on Sunday but his batting average is sitting at only .257, and Ryan likely wants far more for the former AL MVP than any team is willing to give up considering his recent injury history.

Willingham signed a $21 million, three-year contract last December that now appears to be one of the biggest bargains of the offseason. He is 33 years old and if a team came to Ryan with an offer he couldn't refuse odds are he wouldn't.

But Willingham has become a leader in the Twins clubhouse and there also is the question about whether the Twins want to lure a quality free agent to Minnesota and then deal him in the first year of his contract?

It might not be the best perception to create for an organization that likely will spend its offseason chasing at least one marquee pitcher on the open market.

That pitcher, in fact, might end up taking the spot that Francisco Liriano had held in the Twins rotation before he was sent to the Chicago White Sox late Saturday for infielder Eduardo Escobar and lefthanded pitcher Pedro Hernandez.

The trade ended the 28-year-old Liriano's nine-year, roller-coaster stay in the Twins organization and also put an end to a spring and summer filled with speculation about where Liriano might end up.

A solid performance in spring training caused some to hold out hope that Liriano would prove to be a part of the solution for a team that was coming off 99 losses in 2011. But Liriano's dreadful performance for much of April and May left him with a 9.45 earned-run average and got him moved out of the rotation twice and into a relief role once.

It also created the fear that Liriano would depart Minnesota without getting the Twins anything in return. What team would want a starting pitcher who had undergone Tommy John surgery in his career and now seemingly didn't have the mental makeup to be a successful starter in the majors?

Liriano, though, wasn't done surprising - or driving Twins officials up the wall with his maddening inconsistency.

He returned from the bullpen and put together an impressive string of 10 starts. He struck out 15 in a loss to Oakland on July 13 and appeared to be on the right track before he gave up seven runs, seven hits and three home runs in 2 2/3 innings in a 7-4 loss last Monday to the White Sox in Chicago.

As the weather and Liriano heated up, a somewhat common refrain that began to develop went like this: The Twins pitching staff is a mess; Liriano is showing just how good he can be when he's on; and while he will certainly get a raise on his $5.5 million salary isn't it worth exploring the possibility of keeping him?

That is why Liriano's performance last Monday against his now current teammates was a blessing in disguise. If anyone with the Twins organization was starting to encounter second thoughts about trading Liriano they likely ended that night.

Ryan doesn't have to trade Span or Morneau. He had to deal Liriano.

The assumption from this corner was that Ryan had held onto Liriano so long that he likely would wait for the top-flight pitchers on the market to be dealt before he went to a desperate team at the last minute and asked for one or more of their pitching prospects.

This didn't happen.

Zack Greinke was traded from Milwaukee to the Los Angeles Angels on Friday, but Ryan Dempster remains with the Chicago Cubs and Josh Johnson is still a Miami Marlin.

Maybe Ryan didn't have the stomach or interest in watching Liriano start Sunday's game against Cleveland and fall apart again. Another bad start would have given rival general managers the leverage to tell Ryan that he was trying to deal a guy who might be back on a downslide.

The first reaction from many was that Ryan didn't get enough for Lirano, but the fact he was willing to deal within the AL Central clearly showed that he at least got the best deal he thought was out there.

Ryan brought Liriano to Minnesota in the November 2003 heist that sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski and cash to San Francisco and also landed the Twins closer Joe Nathan. Liriano was brilliant in 2006, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA, but the arm injury cost him all of 2007 and he was never the same dominant guy again.

Liriano leaves the Twins with a 50-52 career record, including a 3-10 mark this season with a 5.31 ERA.

The Twins' starting rotation for 2013 is mostly a mystery. Nick Blackburn needs to prove he can be a reliable starter. Liam Hendriks needs to prove he can pitch in the majors. Cole De Vries has to show he has consistent big-league stuff. Sam Deduno's issue isn't stuff but location.

In a perfect world, and without his maddening inconsistency, Liriano would have been locked up to a long-term contract at some point this season and helped to anchor the Twins' rotation for the next four or five seasons. But Ryan never approached the Liriano camp about an extension.

There was a very good reason for this and the Twins will be reminded of it Tuesday when Liriano starts for the White Sox at Target Field.

Odds are good Liriano will be either brilliant or brutal. There likely will be no in between. And which Liriano shows up is anyone's guess.

The best part for the Twins in all of this? It no longer will be their issue to worry about whether Liriano has completely fallen apart or wonder if he really has turned it around.

That's Chicago's issue for the rest of this season.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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