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.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.
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?
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.