Projecting the DFA’d Rymer Liriano

The Padres last week designated outfield prospect Rymer Liriano for assignment to clear a roster spot for the newly signed Alexei Ramirez. The move became yet another curious move in a string of questionable decisions by A.J. Preller and his front-office staff. Not only does Liriano have a prospect pedigree, but San Diego had multiple outfielders on its 40-man roster who could be described as “fringy,” namely Jabari Blash, Alex Dickerson and Travis Jankowski. Yes, Liriano is out of options, but I have a hard time thinking he’s a worse prospect than Blash, who — as a Rule 5 pick — also is out of options.

In some ways, Liriano looks the part of an exciting prospect. The 24-year-old’s power, speed and throwing arm grade out as better than average. Relatively few prospects have such a strong and diverse collection of skills. Furthermore, he’s parlayed those tools into some nice numbers in the high minors. He hit .291/.375/.466 with nearly 40 steals between Double-A and Triple-A in the past last two seasons.

But there’s one pain point in Liriano’s profile, and it’s a big one: he struggles to make consistent contact. Liriano struck out in 24% of his trips to the plate in Triple-A last year, and he’s whiffed well over 20% throughout his minor-league career. You might be thinking “So what?” After all, even with all of the strikeouts, Liriano’s managed to get on base at a high clip in the minors; and he’s done so with a healthy amount of power. His .378 wOBA was the third highest among players younger than 25 in Triple-A last year.

But a strikeout rate as high as Liriano’s is a serious red flag for a prospect. His copious Ks prompt KATOH to project him for just 1.9 WAR in the next six years, which makes him roughly the 250th best in baseball. That’s not impressive. In case you were wondering about his fellow Padres outfield prospects, Jankowski is projected for 5.2 WAR, while Blash and Dickerson check in at 0.9.

Here’s a look at his top statistical comps based on Liriano’s 2015 season at Triple-A, which I generated using a series of weighted Mahalanobis distance calculations. As always, the lower figure represents the more similar comparison.

Rymer Liriano’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Player Wtd Mah Dist Career PA Career WAR
1 Mike Restovich 2.1 297 -0.7
2 Mikie Mahtook* 2.8 115 1.8
3 Jordan Danks* 3.2 390 0.2
4 Dernell Stenson 3.3 93 0.5
5 Xavier Paul 3.4 767 -0.4
6 Brian Simmons 3.5 271 0.1
7 Scott Lydy 3.5 111 0.0
8 Keith Williams 3.5 20 -0.1
9 Gabe Gross 3.6 1,682 5.4
10 Cesar Crespo 3.6 291 -1.4
11 Jim Edmonds 3.7 7,980 64.5
12 Steve Hosey 3.9 61 -0.4
13 Ted Wood 4.0 127 -0.9
14 Terry McDaniel 4.0 30 -0.3
15 Todd Frazier* 4.0 2,524 15.5
16 Franklin Gutierrez* 4.3 2,989 15.7
17 Shane Peterson* 4.3 234 -0.2
18 Ryan Langerhans 4.3 1,474 4.1
19 Jaff Decker* 4.4 72 -0.4
20 Jermaine Allensworth 4.4 1,190 -0.7
*Still Active

There are some very good players in there — Jim Edmonds and Todd Frazier are the two who stand out — but there also are a lot of Quad-A mashers. The list is littered with the Mike Restoviches and Jordan Dankses of the world. More often than not, toolsy, late-count outfielders like Liriano struggle against big-league pitching, just as Liriano did during his brief 2014 tour. By and large, the historical data don’t bode particularly well for Liriano’s future as a big-leaguer.

That’s what the stats say. But as always, the stats don’t tell the full story, especially with players who are as physically gifted as Liriano. To get another perspective, I pinged lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth. Dan had glowing words for Liriano, which suggests the Padres’ decision might have been a poor one.

At worst he looks like a fourth outfielder with enough speed to play all three spots in a pinch. Apart from some hip slide and a little tendency to hook around the ball, I like his swing a lot. He can put the ball in the air even when he’s fooled a bit, and has the raw strength to still have potentially above-average to plus power.

His strikeout issues stem partly from poor contact rates, but it looks like he has more work to do on his approach and pitch recognition to keep them in check. His hip slide may play a small part, since he has nowhere to go but around the ball or continue sliding out on his front foot if he’s too early.

I do think he has enough pitch recognition deficiencies that he won’t be a high-average guy, but his swing and physicality should allow it to play up a bit.

It’s surprising they would give up on him. It’s not out of the question that he’s a future starting outfielder with even a slight improvement to his game plan and/or discipline.

There will surely be several teams clamoring for Liriano’s rights these next few days. From Dan’s analysis, Liriano might be a couple of adjustments away from finally tapping into his potential. Liriano will catch on with a team in need of outfield depth that’s willing to gamble on his upside.

After succeeding in Triple-A last year, Liriano has earned the chance to show what he can do at the highest level. There’s a good chance he’s nothing more than a reserve outfielder. That’s what the projections say. But toolsy players like Liriano have a knack for bending the rules of statistical projections. Time will tell if Liriano will be able to bend them as well.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Cory Settoon
6 years ago

Don’t they already have an expensive Rymer Liriano on the team? I think his name is Melvin?

6 years ago
Reply to  Cory Settoon

Liriano has plus power, speed, and arm, is only 24, and is team controllable for 6 more years. Upton has plus nothing, is 31, and is owed $31.8 million over the next two seasons.