Joe Christensen dropped a minor bombshell on Minneapolis this morning, writing that the Twins may be open to trading Francisco Liriano at some point during spring training. According to Christensen, the Twins were put off by his asking price when the possibility of a long term deal was broached, and now they don’t expect to keep the pitcher beyond 2012. With depth in the rotation and a decent argument to be made that moving Liriano now would be the definition of selling high, there is some logic to exploring what their ace would command in return.
Three other starting pitchers in a similar position have already been traded this winter – Zack Greinke, Matt Garza, and Shaun Marcum. Greinke and Marcum were in identical positions, as they’ll be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2012 season. Garza has an extra year of team control, but because he was a super-two and became arbitration eligible last year, his prices are rising faster than the others and that final year will be rather expensive, limiting its value and making Garza more like the others.
Due to his injury history and inconsistency, Liriano won’t command the same return as Greinke, and he probably wouldn’t gather as much interest as Garza did either. Teams put a premium on durability, and Garza has thrown 200 innings in consecutive seasons, while Liriano has never crossed that threshold. Given their similar-ish ERAs, the Twins will likely find resistance if they try to argue that Liriano is worth more than Garza, even though he blew him away in peripherals last year.
That leaves Marcum as the closest comparison to Liriano. Like Liriano, Marcum has a history of injury problems but returned to pitch at a high level last year. In fact, their 2010 innings pitched and ERA totals are nearly identical, and this showed in their 2011 contracts – Marcum avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $3.95 million deal, while Liriano got $4.3 million. While Marcum doesn’t throw as hard, they both have knockout secondary pitches which they lean heavily upon.
In return for Marcum, the Blue Jays acquired Brett Lawrie, who Keith Law recently rated as the 37th best prospect in baseball. Position prospects in that range are generally worth about $20-$25 million in value, based on Victor Wang’s research. While the Twins could likely argue that Liriano should be valued at a higher rate than Marcum (teams pay a premium for velocity and strikeouts, both areas where Liriano has a significant edge), I think they’d have a tough time getting significantly more than what Toronto received when they moved a similarly valued pitcher.
In other words, Twins fans can probably stop dreaming of someone like Jesus Montero, as the Yankees would likely balk at that asking price. But if they made Liriano available, the Yankees would be the most obvious suitor, and would likely pay a higher price than any other team. Perhaps they’d be willing to part with Manny Banuelos, who Law ranks as one of the game’s best pitching prospects? That might be enough to satisfy the perceived differences between Liriano and Marcum, but would it be a large enough premium to justify improving one of the Twins main rivals for the American League pennant?
Dealing Liriano to the Yankees is likely the big question that the Twins will have to answer. If they make Liriano available, you can be sure that Brian Cashman will pick up the phone. If the Twins see 2011 as something of a consolidation year, with World Series contention more of a hope than a legitimate reality, then you can justify sending your best pitcher to a league rival if you think you’re getting the better end of the deal long term. But if the Twins think that Justin Morneau is going to be 100 percent this year and they want to make another run at a championship while they have Jim Thome and the M&M boys in their primes, then they shouldn’t be in the business of strengthening teams they will need to beat in October.
I can see the reasoning behind considering dealing Liriano now, but it would likely require the Twins to admit that 2011 is probably not their year, and that’s a tough case to make to the rest of the team right as spring training opens up. If this was a path they wanted to pursue, it probably would have made more sense to be aggressive in dealing Liriano earlier in the winter, when they might have been able to ship him to Milwaukee or Chicago, getting quality prospects in return and getting him out of the American League. Now, faced with the choice of sending him to New York or taking an offer that is likely less impressive in return than what the Yankees would put on the table, the Twins are left with two less than palatable options. At this juncture, I think the Twins are probably best served hanging onto Liriano until the summer. By then, they may have more clarity about their own chances of making a splash in the playoffs, and there might also be an NL contender willing to get in on the bidding.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.