Last year, Twins fans were curious whether the front office would seek to lock up lefty Francisco Liriano, who was coming off a very strong 2010 season. In the end, of course, the parties only agreed to go year-to-year. Seth Stohs quoted then-general manager Bill Smith as stating the following regarding Liriano, at last year's Twins Fest: "No, we are going to go year-to-year with Liriano, at least for one more year. We definitely recognize the risk in doing that and if he has another big year, it will cost us some money." When I read that quote last year, it made me think two things: first, that the organization, for whatever reason, did not want to commit many years or dollars to Liriano; and second, that if Liriano did have a big 2011 season, the Twins would probably be priced out of his market for a long-term contract anyway (notwithstanding that he is under team control for 2012), because two straight years of dominance for a hard-throwing lefty strikeout machine is a hot commodity.
Well, it seems that, at least with respect to timing, Smith was right not to "buy high" on Liriano last season. Liriano had anything but "another big year," going 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA. Yes, he did have a no-hitter, and he did show flashes of brilliance on occasion. But it was an extremely frustrating year for Liriano, and he did nothing to build upon, let alone replicate, his 2010 season. It was frustrating for fans, manager Ron Gardenhire, pitching coach Rick Anderson, the front office, and I'm sure most of all, for Liriano himself. There could be a silver lining, though.
I have no idea whether Liriano wants to stay in Minnesota long-term. It seems to me that they have treated him fairly, and have stuck with him through the ups and downs of his career. At the same time, though, the organization's reluctance in the 2010 offseason to attempt to sign Liriano to a contract that would buy out his last 2 arbitration years, and a year or two of free agency, could have rubbed Liriano the wrong way. There was also an incident in 2008 where Liriano's agent, Greg Genske, sought a union investigation after Liriano, who had gone 7-0 in Rochester in 9 starts, had not been called up to the Twins. That, however, was years ago. I simply have no idea where the parties stand. It's hard to imagine, however, that Liriano doesn't like pitching at Target Field.
I think that now would be a good time to contact Liriano's agent and try to negotiate a 3 or 4 year contract. Major League Baseball Trade Rumors has Liriano pegged for an approximate salary of $5.2 million in 2012; he made $4.3 million in 2011 after the parties avoided arbitration. Boy, to be able to get a sizeable raise after throwing up those stats in 2011!! In any event, $5.2 million for Liriano is not a bad deal. I hope we see more of the 2010 Liriano than the 2011 Liriano, and, quite simply, that's been his problem throughout his career (that, and the Tommy John surgery, of course). Which Liriano will the Twins get in 2012? And, if the parties manage to continue their working relationship, which Liriano will we see in 2013-2015? It's really a toss-up, which is exactly why Liriano is so intriguing.
A Minnesota sports writer or blogger penned a good column a year or so ago suggesting that the Twins should have locked up Joe Mauer in early 2009, when he was rehabbing in Ft. Myers. I can't find the column, but the best line went something like this: "Bill Smith should have gone to Ft. Myers the first week of the regular season, when Mauer was in pain, rehabbing that knee, soaking in a hot tub after a tough workout, and feeling guilty that he wasn't in Minnesota with his teammates to begin the regular season. Smith should have said, 'Joe, don't worry about it. Don't worry about those nagging injures. We want you to be a Twin forever; we'll take care of you. Here, take this pen and sign this 9-year $162 million contract. We're going to make you the richest catcher in baseball, the richest Twin in history, and you'll be here forever. And don't worry about that knee or those other injuries -- you'll get through it.'" Of course, such a conversation probably never took place, and the Twins ended up buying high on Mauer after 2009, in what will almost certainly be his best season ever, and one of the best seasons for a catcher in the history of baseball. I still believe that the Mauer contract isn't bad, and it simply was a market rate contract for an elite player. But it is an example of buying high on a player, and, as we saw in 2011, when that star player is injured or otherwise unproductive, such a contract is a risky proposition to a team with a limited budget.
My question for the Twins now is, "if not Liriano, then who?" What other pitcher are they going to sign that has the potential to throw a no-hitter, to come close to leading the league in strikeouts, and who currently is wearing a Twins jersey? Yes, Liriano might never be as good as he was in 2010. But I would like to think that he won't be as bad as he was in 2011, either. He might never be that dependable 1-2 starter that the Twins so desperately need; but he also might be 2 fixes away from being that -- here comes the word -- ace that all us fans want, and that we have had glimpses of in 2006 and 2010.
By locking up Liriano now, the Twins can do the opposite of what they ended up doing with Mauer -- buy low, relatively speaking. It's certainly risky from the Twins' perspective, and I get it: Liriano has been anything but consistent. But I think Liriano is worth the risk, and I want this team to take a risk, rather than simply signing pitchers of the Nick Blackburn-ilk to so-called "team friendly" contracts, or getting a Livan Hernandez or Jason Marquis-type player every year to fill that final rotation spot.
I'm not sure who constitutes a good comparison for Liriano. He's unique, to be sure, because he's a lefty, power pitcher, who already has had Tommy John surgery, has been consistently inconsistent, and threw a no-hitter in a season where he would have had the 4th highest ERA in the American League had he thrown enough innings to qualify. I don't have a computer program to tell me what that kind of a starter should be paid, but, just for the sake of conversation, I would buy out this arbitration year, and try to get Liriano to sign for 4 years, $9-10 million a year. Yes, it's a risk, and there's a decent chance it could be a bad investment. But, if we get 2 years of the 2010 Liriano, then he will surely earn the majority of that contract. Another possibility is that if Liriano is at least decent, there's always a chance that if the Twins' are not competitive down the road, the contract could be movable to a contending team looking for that elusive lefty, strikeout pitcher. The Yankees have expressed interest multiple times. As I mentioned earlier, I have no idea if Liriano even wants to stay in Minnesota long-term, but if he is willing, I would negotiate now.
I'd be happy to hear your thoughts. Should we just sever ties and trade him at the deadline for a good prospect? Should we have traded him last year? Or should we hire a sports psychologist to try to figure out why he sometimes can't make it through the first inning?