Francisco Liriano, the Twins, and the Towel

You are running a team that is coming off a divisional championship, thanks in large part to a Cy Young Level performance by a pitcher finally “all the way back” from injury. He’s still under team control through 2012, and your team is still considered a contender for the division. What do you? Consider trading him, of course! According to the linked report, that might be the situation with the Twins and Francisco Liriano. But can they contend in 2011 without him?

The Twins’ (reported) perspective isn’t ridiculous. There’s no doubting that Liriano put on a dominating performance in just about every respect in 2010, and, indeed, would have been a worthy Cy Young choice. However, the Twins may have legitimate concerns about his health given his past injuries and his heavy reliance on his slider, which some think puts more strain on his arm. I’m not going to pretend to know enough about Liriano’s health or pitching injuries in general to comment on that issue, but it at least puts perspective on why the Twins would be cautious about locking him up long-term. That doesn’t mean they have to trade him now, of course, as he’s under their control through 2012. Still, they may be a bit worried of putting themselves into a Johan Santana situation all over again and not getting the return they would like for a tremendous pitching talent. That does not quite explain why they’ve chosen already named Carl Pavano their Opening Day starter (why some teams are already naming Opening Day starters is beyond me), but that also shows that the team isn’t all that high on Liriano. As Aaron Gleeman has written, it makes one wonder if they realize just how good Liriano is.

Again, I’m not going to argue about whether or not Liriano should be traded. However, I do think that if the Twins do decide to trade him, they are (consciously or not) making it unlikely that they will contend in 2011. Both Chicago and Detroit have their flaws, but they have improved in the offseason, and with Liriano, the Twins look like they will be in a three-way race. However, without him (and without crunching all the necessary league-wide numbers), the hill they would have to climb becomes that much steeper. One doesn’t need to think Liriano is a true alent six-win pitcher to understand this. Even a conservative number of innings pitched like 165 and a FIP around 3.5 still puts Liriano in the 3.5-4 win range, which would still make him at least win better than the Twins next best starters: Pavano and Scott Baker. Both are useful mid-rotation starters, of course, but they aren’t on the level of, say, Justin Verlander (probably the best pitcher in the division now that Zack Greinke is in the National League) and Max Scherzer. Moreover, with Liriano gone, that puts even more pressure on Brian Duensing to repeat his 2010 performance as a starter and, worse, puts Nick Blackburn (a fine sixth starter) back in the rotation. And that is all without considering the injury problems that Baker and Kevin Slowey experienced last season.

The Twins are a bit of a lopsided team, talent-wise: Liriano’s superiority to the other members of the rotation is mirrored by the superiority of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau over the other position players. Morneau, of course, is himself a question mark coming off a concussion that prematurely ended his 2010 season. If Liriano isn’t on the team and Morneau can’t come back for a while at the beginning of the season (or has trouble getting going when he does), that makes it hard to see the Twins seriously competing in the American League Central without a greater dose of “Gardy magic” than usual.

I’m personally a big fan of Liriano’s pitching abilities, and any team in the league would be (or at least shoudl be) thrilled to have him. However, it might be the case that a Liriano trade is in the best long-term interest of the Minnesota Twins. Nonetheless such a trade could very well be the equivalent of throwing in the towel for their playoff chances in 2011.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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