Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Highest of Highs and the Lowest of Lows

After the four-game sweep of the Royals, we as Twins fans and I'm sure the Twins themselves were feeling good. It was, after all, a pretty thorough defeat of a terrible team. However, the news after last night's game couldn't have been worse. Francisco Liriano, it seems, is still hurt and probably in a worse way than you or I would like to know.

When you read words like "Liriano, 22, seemed on the verge of tears, and his voice crackled as he described the pain, pointing to the inside of the elbow this time, beneath the muscle and possibly in the joint" and " 'I couldn't even throw the fastball, slider, changeup anything....It bothered me every pitch I threw,' " there is definitely reason to worry.

Liriano did not look like half his normal self last night. Though his slider still had bite and his fastball was hitting 96, he looked uncomfortable and unusually mortal, giving up a career-high 10 hits while striking five and walking none in his four innings of work. Seeing him taken out after only 67 pitches was a definite indication that an issue was at hand.

A few days ago, I reflected on my feeling that such an issue for Liriano was quite possible. I wrote that:
Its clear the torque Liriano puts on his elbow with each hard-breaking slider is doing damage to his elbow and forearm area. It may only be a matter of time before he faces major problems. He may be okay for now, but winning the Rookie of the Year (*cough cough* Kerry Wood) isn't worth ruining a career. I don't wish to jump to any conclusions, but in retrospect, the Twins caution with Liriano may be a good thing.

It's likely that Liriano's delivery and mechanics will eventually need altering. It's a choice between a great season and possible playoff success and a good long career. Sure, if Liriano loses some bite on his slider due to alterations of his mechanics, he'll get hit a little harder, at least at first, but more reliance on a great fastball with movement and a good changeup (one that can be great with Santana sitting on the bench waiting to help out) isn't such a bad thing. Anyway, the fact is that Liriano probably will eventually have to rely less on the slider regardless.

There is a long list of pitchers whose careers fell apart for similar reasons or had to change their pitching to compensate (think John Smoltz, or our own Scott Erickson). It seems to me that the Twins will probably go the cautious route, as most of their decisions this year point to the future and not going to the playoffs anyway. Even this year, the staff could simply try and persuade Liriano to rely more on his fastball and changeup. But who knows if that will happen?
Obviously I had no semblance of a clue this would actually happen, but the possibility was always there. This represents a huge issue for the Twins, because Liriano's future is now clearly at stake. Reading the words "out indefinitely with a left elbow injury" just killed me. It all but destroys the Twins' hopes of going to the playoffs. Yes, they still have their core of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Johan Santana, but with the shaky backend of their rotation they needed the two top-line starters to do make it this far and they need them to go all the way.

This team probably can't rely too much longer on retreads like Jason Tyner, Josh Rabe, Mike Smith, Boof Bonser, Willie Eyre and others. It's true that Matt Garza will almost certainly be called up now, but will it make a difference? There is no way to know how Garza will do under such immense pressure, especially after throwing more innings than he ever has in his professional life.

The point is that the Twins just lost a huge reason why they were in the playoff race in the first place and it's hard to imagine they can go too much farther without the guy we've come to call Franchise. Even if they did somehow make it to the playoffs, they will go with a Santana, an older and constantly pain-striken Brad Radke, and a very mediocre Carlos Silva. Suddenly their staff is not so intimidating.

The good news, of course, is that even if the Twins fail to make it to the playoffs, the future still looks bright, even if Liriano isn't a significant part of it. Who knows what will happen with him. At best, this could be purely muscular and he could possibly come back this year. At worst, he could need Tommy John surgery and never be heard from again. Regardless, this is why the Twins are so protective of their pitching depth. They still have a pool of deep pitching talent ready to help them contend the next few years with Santana, Mauer, Morneau and Co. on board.

So, despite this depressing news, the future is not grim the way it is in Washington, Kansas City, or Pittsburgh.

And, yes, I realize a game happened last night. But the ugliness of that game, Jesse Crain's four-walk performance, and Morneau and Mauer's continued great hitting were all outshadowed by this news. Let's just hope Radke's arm doesn't fall off tonight.

9 comments:

Nick N. said...

I would just like to add that I am incredibly depressed by this news. The Twins really needed Liriano to make a run at the post-season, and I'm afraid that Santana simply will not be able to carry this rotation on his own (let's not forget that he hasn't even been his dominant self lately).

Despite the incredible breakout seasons of Mauer and Morneau, Liriano has been the most exciting and fun story to follow for Twins fans this year. It is still early and not much is known about the injury at this point, but from what we've seen in the past we definitely have to look at it as career-threatening. What a sad day for Twins fans everywhere.

twins15 said...

This is a good way to ruin my week. :(

snoopy said...

I Could not have said it better , If it is the end of this year for Liriano and the twins chances for a wild card berth. There is next year... With hope , Unlike K.C or several other places. It was a nice run but we may be shoveling dirt too soon. I hope so

Nick M. said...

Yeah, well, as I said, remember this organization has names like Garza, Slowey, Perkins, Jones, Harben, and more. The pitching depth really is important in this case because you never know. But don't jump to the conclusion that Francisco is somehow autumatically the next Kerry Wood or Mark Prior. That isn't exactly fair either. There is reason for comparison, but the Twins can also do the smart thing and avoid the road the Cubs took with those guys and I believe this organization is smart enough to do so. Of course, if you hear the words "Tommy John," I understand if you have a heart attack.

HrbekIsMyHero said...

It is enough to make a grown man cry. Even if that man is a baseball loving middle aged loser like me. I read also that Santana is having back spasms which may or may not be the reason for his un-Santana like streak since July. God, the whole frigging team is hurt or dragging, or so it would seem. I'm not being rational. Let's not jump off a building yet, but I would NOT have Liriano throwing a pitch again this season until they absolutely know what's going on...shut him down now. God that hurts to lose this season, but you just can't mess around with this kind of injury...

Nick M. said...

Its now being said on ESPN that its not a elbow issue, but still an issue with the forearm muscle, according to Gardy. I don't know if that is true, but if its just the muscle that would be good news. Of course, all my points would remain true. Liriano still needs to alter his mechanics if he wants to stick around long. Throwing like that makes arms fall off.

Nick N. said...

I think Gardenhire is saying it's muscular because he's trying to convince himself of that. The way the Star Tribune story was written really makes me believe the pain is coming from the joint, which is bad news.

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