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Updated: July 18th, 2012 2:45pm
Zulgad: Twins have little choice but to deal Francisco Liriano

Zulgad: Twins have little choice but to deal Francisco Liriano

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Francisco Liriano's resurgence since returning to the Minnesota Twins' starting rotation has caused some debate about what should be done with the 28-year-old lefthander.

As Liriano struggled during the first month-plus of the season and was eventually banished to the bullpen, the feeling was the Twins would be lucky to get anything for him.

This was a huge disappointment considering Liriano had a solid spring and was pitching on a one-year, $5.5 million contract that should have served as an extra incentive for him to thrive. Liriano went 0-3 with an 11.02 earned-run average in April and gave up eight earned runs in 10 1/3 innings in back-to-back losses to the Anaheim Angels before being sent to the bullpen.

Liriano, however, has managed to turn things around since returning to the rotation in late May. He entered Wednesday night's start against Baltimore at Target Field with a 2.83 ERA in 57 1/3 innings in nine games and had surrendered only two home runs and walked 25, while striking out 67.

That 2.83 ERA was among the top 15 for major-league starters during that time, according to STATS LLC. In Liriano's last outing Friday night against Oakland, he struck out a career-high 15 and walked only one, but still managed to lose 6-3 thanks to one bad inning in which Jonny Gomes blasted a grand slam off of him.

That dropped Liriano's record to 3-8 on the season.

Nonetheless, there has been renewed debate among some who look at the Twins' pitching woes and feel signing Liriano to a long-term deal might be the best idea given there is so much uncertainty surrounding the starting staff for 2013.

There are two problems with any line of thinking that has Liriano in a Twins uniform past the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31.

One, it doesn't take into account how brutal Liriano was early in the season and the fact that there are no assurances he won't return to being that pitcher next April or sooner. He simply can't be relied upon to have ever really turned the corner.

The other, and perhaps most important issue, is that although Liriano's absence from an already poor starting staff might hurt in the short term, common sense says that should not matter.

The Twins desperately need an influx of pitching talent into this organization that they can begin to build around and dealing Liriano now could help to get that process started.

The Twins' most likely, and valuable, trade chips right now appear to be Liriano and center fielder Denard Span. Closer Matt Capps might have brought a prospect in return, but he's back on the disabled list because of continued discomfort in the front of his shoulder.

Starter Carl Pavano is another guy who could have been traded for something, but he hasn't pitched since June 1 because of a shoulder issue. Pavano is a ways from returning and while he could be traded after Aug. 1 - as could Capps - he would have to clear waivers.

Left fielder Josh Willingham likely would bring the biggest haul of any Twin in a trade but indications are that while the team will listen to offers they have little interest in dealing a guy who has hit 22 home runs in the first year of a three-year, $21 million contract.

Justin Morneau has been hitting much better of late, he's sitting on a .254 average, but given concerns about his injury issues and the fact he's struggled for portions of this season, it's hard to believe general manager Terry Ryan could get what he wants for the first baseman.

That leaves Liriano as one of the most logical options for relocation.

Phil Mackey, who covers the Twins for 1500 ESPN, wrote a column this month in which he talked to baseball executives about what Liriano could bring in a trade. This was before he fanned 15 Oakland hitters.

"I think the one thing you might be able to get someone to dream on -- it's amazing to me, continually, how often trades are made based on the last two starts," one American League personnel director told Mackey. "So if he can put together a couple of starts in the next couple of weeks... You've definitely seen him turn the corner the last month or so."

Liriano might serve as nothing more than a rent-a-pitcher, but given his performances of late and the fact an extra wild card team in each league has made the races extremely competitive, that might be enough for a club to give Ryan a satisfactory return in a deal.

Liriano would be owed about $2.75 million for the rest of the season. That might not seem so bad to a team such as the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees or Toronto Blue Jays. All have scouted Liriano. The Los Angeles Angels also reportedly have expressed interest.

Odds appear high that Liriano will be gone by or on July 31. The Twins reportedly have not approached him about a contract extension, something that likely would have been done by now if the intention was to keep him around.

The Twins do have the option of holding onto Liriano into the offseason and then extending him a one-year, $12.4 million deal that would mean they would qualify for draft-pick compensation if he signed elsewhere as a free agent.

There is an argument from some that collecting compensation is a fine way to go about business and justifies not trading a player like Liriano.

In this case, that is a bunch of hogwash.

Ryan made it clear during an appearance on 1500 ESPN this week that he isn't interested in a lengthy rebuilding process with the Twins. He wants to turn things around as quick as possible.

That means acquiring big-league players or prospects who are near being ready to play at Target Field. The draft can help rebuild a franchise over time, but in the case of Liriano, the Twins have the ability to collect some pieces that could provide help in a far more immediate fashion. 

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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