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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Lock Up Francisco Liriano: Now is the Time

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?


  1. No brainer in my book... but after locking in Blackburn, they might have some buyers' remorse.

  2. Unless he has a huge, CY-type, season, it's hard for me to imagine Liriano getting more than $10-12 mil per year as a FA next offseason. That being the case, I can't see offering the level of contract you're suggesting. Even with just a "good" season, he's still going to have the "consistently inconsistent" tag that is likely to keep him from getting huge money.

    Locking him up now would be a case of "buying low", which is a reasonable idea IF you actually benefit by paying a relatively low amount. Offering a guaranteed $36-40 mil contract to Liriano now would be foolish.

    He needs to prove he can be relied upon in order to really cash in. If he could get the Twins to offer even a 2 year deal with an option that guarantees him $15 million, he should take it and build toward a big payday while he's still young enough to get it. In any event, I wouldn't want the Twins locking in 10% of their annual payroll on a guy no more reliable than Liriano has been.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Much appreciated, as always.

    JC, I agree that my figures to retain Liriano might be a little high. Keep in mind, though, that this is the same organization that is paying $8.5 million for Carl Pavano in 2012. Yes, he will "eat innings," and yes, he has been consistent when Liriano has not, but I'm not sure that Liriano at $9 million is worse than Pavano at $8.5 million. And then there's the Nick Blackburn contract . . . .

    I guess it's a big gamble, and you're right, if we're stuck at $100 million in payroll for the next 4 years, it's a lot to commit to a consistently inconsistent lefty. I'd definitely go for a 2 year, $15 million contract with an option, but in that case I bet Liriano's agent would tell him to make sure he pitches well in 2012 and hold out for a bigger payday somwhere else -- unless Liriano and company feel that his best days are behind him.

  4. Obviously, there's a significant difference in risk between paying Pavano 8.5 mil for one more year and paying Liriano 9 mil a year for the next 4 years, though.

    You hit upon the crux of the issue, though, and that is that while the team may want to "buy low" and possibly get a discount on future years, the agent is likely to encourage the player to wait at this point and hope for a better year to build his value up (wouldn't it be great if all it took was his agent telling him to make sure he pitches well this year?!). Just as a year ago when the agent would have been quite happy talking about a long term deal, based on his player coming off a big year, while the team was reluctant to overpay.

    These deals happen only when both sides feel the time and money are "right". I'm not sure such will be the case with Liriano and the Twins this offseason.

  5. I would feel great about a 3 year deal around 24 million, with an option for a 4th year at 12 million dollars.

  6. JC, isn't it interesting how often (or at least how often it seems) that a player magically has an above average season going into a contract year? I agree, though, that it might be a tough fit right now based on what the Twins would want to pay to lock down Liriano after what he put up in 2011, versus what his agent might think his client could really be worth after another season. Some team, somewhere, would really overpay if Liriano wins 15 games this season and has an ERA under 4.

    Eric, that sounds like a pretty fair deal. Maximum commitment of $36 million over 4 years. I'd take it!

  7. Eric's proposal would make me uncomfortable, but not make me throw up. Guess that means it's probably reasonable.

    And yes, the "contract year" syndrome sure seems to work a lot, but maybe it just seems that way because those are the situations that get the attention. Matt Capps was in his contract year last season, too.

  8. Buying low the Twin's aren't smart enough to due that. Plus the Twin's would have to spend some money this ain't going to happen but I would definately look him up.

  9. Buying low on Liriano is an interesting premise. It's a unique spin, because so many Twins fans are clammoring to sell low on players just like Liriano. They want to trade him because he had a bad season.

    The difference between the theories of buying low on Mauer and Liriano is that, while Liriano is a good bet to bounce back in 2012, we have no idea where he'll be in the 2013 or 2014 in terms of performance. He's a yo-yo stock. Buying low on Mauer, at least, would have been likely to pay off over the next handful of seasons.

    That's why it's dangerous to offer that long-term contract to Liriano now. Of course if he comes out like a gang buster this year and delivers an ace performance, then he might just price himself out of the Twins' range, but the alternative is to hope that you don't end up paying him $10 million (or even $8 million) for a season like he had in 2011.

    Letting him play out his final arbitration season seems like the best thing to do. The Twins have strapped themselves financially already. If they play their relationship card right with Liriano this year, hopefully he has a good year and we can take it from there. But for me at least, buying low on him isn't something I'd consider.

  10. Thanks for the comments. Jesse, I definitely agree that the Mauer and Liriano "buy low" situations are very different because, well, Mauer has been much more consistent.

    It's a tough call. After reading all the comments, I feel like the Twins might be damned either way: if they let him go after 2012, or trade him, and he finds success, he'll be the next in the list of Twins' pitchers that got away (though fans should probably take note of what Johan Santana has done, or not done, in a Mets' uniform for the past few seasons).

    I definitely think I was a little off-base suggesting $9-10 million/season. I like Eric's suggestion of 3 years and $8 million with a nice option year at the end.

    If the Twins do as I suggest and resign him now, and all he ever does is be an overpaid 4.5 ERA pitcher who occasionally pitches lights-out, it's a big waste of money.

    I just don't see very many hard-throwing leftys in the Twins' farm system, which is exactly what makes Liriano so interesting.

  11. I would prefer some performance incentives in the deal (perhaps innings pitches), to motivate Liriano. Perhaps base salaries of 7-8 million with incentives for 2-3 million? That for three years would be great.