Friday, February 08, 2008

Can Liriano Snap Back?

Oh, F-Bomb.

No, I'm not referring to Bert Blyleven's expletive of choice. I'm referring to a popular nickname for Francisco Liriano, the young left-handed phenom whose healing left elbow may be the key to the Twins' chances of competing in 2008. On Wednesday I wrote about the state of the Twins' organization from a pitching standpoint, noting that Liriano is the only player with legitimate ace potential likely to be on the team within the next several years. There's no doubting that Liriano has the ability to pitch like a No. 1 -- he was transcendent in 2006, better even than Johan Santana. The question is whether he will be able to regain that form, and if so, how soon he can get there. If it's this season, the Twins could be a force to be reckoned with. Is that plausible? Liriano says he feels great, but in order to get a realistic idea of what to expect from him this year, it is prudent to look at how other pitchers have historically fared in their first year back after the operation.

Here is a quick and dirty list of some prominent pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery over the past decade, and how they performed in the majors in their first year back (innings pitched, ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio):

Matt Morris
Underwent surgery: 1999
First season back: 53 IP, 3.57 ERA, 34/17

John Smoltz
Underwent surgery: 2000
First season back: 59 IP, 3.36 ERA, 57/10
Became a full-time closer upon returning; later returned to Atlanta's rotation where he has been excellent.

Erik Bedard
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 137.1 IP, 4.59 ERA, 121/71
A good comp for Liriano because he's a hard-throwing left-hander with good breaking stuff.

Kris Benson
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 130.1 IP, 4.70 ERA, 79/50

Adam Eaton
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 183 IP, 4.08 ERA, 146/68
Not truly his first season back, he returned to the Padres in September of '02 to make six starts and post a 5.40 ERA.

Jon Lieber
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 176.2 IP, 4.33 ERA, 102/18

Chris Capuano
Underwent surgery: 2002.
First season back: 33 IP, 4.64, 23/11
Also pitched 142 2/3 innings in Triple-A for a total of 175 2/3 innings pitched in his first season back.

A.J. Burnett
Underwent surgery: 2003
First season back: 120 IP, 3.68 ERA, 113/38

Paul Byrd
Underwent surgery: 2003.
First season back: 114.1 IP, 3.94 ERA, 79/19
Interestingly, he posted a 6.22 K/9 rate that ranks as his best in the past 10 years.

Ryan Dempster
Underwent surgery: 2003
First season back: 20.2 IP, 3.94 ERA, 18/13
Converted to a full-time reliever after the surgery. Has not been especially great since, but what's notable is that it took him less than a year to recover and get back on the mound.

Randy Wolf
Underwent surgery: 2005
First season back: 56.2 IP, 5.56 ERA, 44/33

Most of the players on this list managed to post numbers in line with their career averages in their first year back, which obviously would be a very good thing in Liriano's case. The big issue is innings. I couldn't find one example of a pitcher who surpassed the 200-inning mark in his first season back, and most reached only 130 or so. That might be a realistic goal for Liriano, but he does have a few things working in his favor: 1) he has had a longer recovery time than most pitchers on the list, and 2) he is very young. Of course, he also does have a relatively violent delivery and a high reliance on his breaking pitch, factors which may work against him.

To be completely honest, I have no idea what to expect from Liriano this season. If the Twins can get 130 innings at around a 3.00 ERA from him, I think we'd all be very satisfied. Can that actually happen? History says yes. We'll have to wait and see.

***

On a completely unrelated note, the Gophers football team's recruiting class was ranked No. 17 in the nation by Rivals.com and No. 23 by ESPN. That's pretty amazing for a team that went 1-11 last year. If you're at all interested, you can check out this feature I wrote on head coach Tim Brewster for the student magazine here at the U a while back. Great guy.

21 comments:

sploorp said...

I must say, this is certainly welcome news.

But there is a third factor that might be affecting the innings pitched. How many of those pitchers returned to the rotation at the start of the season? I know at least a few came back after the season started, plus many spent time in the minors as well (but that might have very well been in lieu of a missed spring traing).

F-bomb has been given a clean bill of health and was cleared to prepare for spring as usual. He was all set to pitch in winter league, before the front office said maybe not a good idea.

Kelly Thesier has cautioned not to be too optimistic and that he may need to spend time rehabbing in the minors. While I'm trying my best not to be overly optimistic, my impression is still that he will break spring training with the team.

Nick N. said...

Kelly Thesier has cautioned not to be too optimistic and that he may need to spend time rehabbing in the minors. While I'm trying my best not to be overly optimistic, my impression is still that he will break spring training with the team.

Certainly a reasonable stance. As I noted, Liriano has had a lot of time to recover. I'm just keeping my expectations low, and if he exceeds them I will be more than happy.

Mike C said...

Another thing working against him is (from what experts have been saying)that his mechanics may make him more prone to injury.

Hopefully not, but some people think his mechanics may need to be reworked to extend his career.

I'm not sure I buy it but it's something to keep an eye on.

MVB said...

I couldn't agree more Nick. Liriano is the difference maker between playing competitive baseball and another season like last year.

Let's hope for a quick recovery, but the Twins can't place too much pressure on him.

What are your thoughts on signing another veteran pitcher? I heard Joe Blanton trade rumors?

I'd love to just let the kids pitch, but I'm worried about who will pitch all these innings. Too much pressure on the bullpen.

Lenny Green said...

I like the idea of starting him at Rochester. With 8 or so prospects/suspects for the starting rotation, 2008 will likely be a series of fits and starts; trying the first 5, replacing one or two of them with whoever is productive in AAA, etc. With April in Rochester, Liriano will be queued up to naturally move into the spot of whoever is invariably performing at a less than stellar level.

Nick N. said...

What are your thoughts on signing another veteran pitcher? I heard Joe Blanton trade rumors?

I'm not against the idea of bringing in a veteran arm or two to compete for a spot in the rotation, provided that they are given the same opportunity as anyone else. Guaranteeing a spot to a more experienced pitcher just for the sake of having a veteran in your rotation is ill-advised (see: Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson), but as you note, going into the season with a bunch of kids who haven't proven that they can put together a full season yet is awfully risky.

I don't think there was much weight to the Blanton rumors, and Joe Christensen effectively squashed them on his blog yesterday. I don't think trading for him would have made sense; he'd be nice to have, but he would have cost the Twins several pitching prospects. The Twins have a handful of young guys with a decent chance of turning into a Blanton-type pitcher.

Lenny: My guess is that that will end up being the case. However, if he's feeling strong in spring training and is ready to go, it doesn't make much sense to hold him out of the big-league rotation. As I noted, he could potentially be the difference between this pitching staff being an average one or an above-average one.

Curveball said...

My biggest fear is what Francisco will cost the Twins IF he does dazzle, which hopefully will be in 2008 ratehr than 2009. Like Kubel, he gets a year closer to arbitration without throwing a ball to major league batter for one season. He'll be arbitration eligible in 2009, and a free agent after the 2011 season when, if he is truly brilliant, will cost $100+ million or more. Arrgh! I'm hoping for a brilliant 2008 and that Francisco will be a pitcher the Twins can sign for a long-term contract to make us all forget about...hummm...I can't remember his name.....

Nick N. said...

He'll be arbitration eligible in 2009, and a free agent after the 2011 season when, if he is truly brilliant, will cost $100+ million or more.

In that scenario, I'd hope the Twins would sign him to a contract similar to the one they gave Santana when he was in arbitration, with a contract that would lock up Liriano into his free agency years. Considering his injury history, Liriano might be so eager for the security of a long-term deal that he'd give the team a decent bargain on his first couple free agent years. Of course, that's so far away that I'm not worrying about it yet.

sploorp said...

Lenny Green said, "I like the idea of starting him at Rochester."

I know that I'm the one that brought up Kelly Thesier, but I think she may be trying not to set anybody up for a disappointment by expecting too much too soon. You know, prepare us for the worst possible scenario knowing we all are secretly hoping for the best. I also feel that a stint in Rochester may be more of a knee jerk reaction then anything.

My take is a little bit different.

Liriano has been given a clean bill of health and a green light to begin preparing for spring like he normally would. Everything I've read has been positive plus. In addition to rehab, he was on a strengthening regimen. He put on about 15 pounds of muscle and has strengthened up his shoulder as well. They also made a few minor adjustments to his mechanics and he learned another pitch so he doesn't have to rely on his slider quite as much.

Gardy or one of the front office people also made an interesting comment. They said that it might be a while before Liriano will get over his fear of re-injuring himself. They also made a comparison to when Santana had bone spurs removed from his elbow. It took a few months before he learned that he really let go with his pitches and not feel any pain. That makes me believe that the front office is very confident in the success of the operation and Liriano's recovery.

My impression of rehab assignments is that they are more of a mini spring for a player coming of the DL. A chance to get back into shape and get their skills up to par after a long period of inactivity. I'm not sure what he could accomplish in Rochester that he wouldn't be able do in spring training.

I say start the season with your five best starters, whomever they may be. Spring training should be enough time to get a feel for where he is at and get his mechanics up to snuff. If a post Tommy John Liriano is good enough to be one of those five, so be it. If he isn't, THEN it's time to consider a minor league assignment.

The guy has spent the last year and a half rehabbing and throwing bullpen sessions. Either he is ready or he isn't. If he's ready then, good God, give the man the ball and let him pitch.

There is nothing I want to see more then F-bomb mowing down Angel batters on opening day. Especially a certain outfielder, but I'm kind of blanking on the guy's name right now.

Anonymous said...

As pointed out re: arbitration/FA re: Liriano: he is about 31 days into his third season as of opening day. I believe he obviously has options and could be sent to Rochester for perhaps six or seven weeks and we would save a full year's service time that would definitely extend our leverage in terms of building a superb club. The proper move with Liriano, even if he's ready to throw a no-hitter on opening day, is to send him to Rochester for the first weeks of the season and prepare for his triumphant return in mid May. Super two status is not a big deal if you save another year before he can go free agent. The Twins are going NOWHERE in 2008. So why burn his service time? Doesn't make an iota of sense to me, and with his arm situation, he can be optioned to Rochester easily without the players union having a cow.

sploorp said...

Anonymous said: "So why burn his service time? Doesn't make an iota of sense to me, and with his arm situation, he can be optioned to Rochester easily without the players union having a cow."

That is a very interesting take, though I must admit I don't understand the stuff about super two. What is that? Are you saying a stint in the minors would put off arbitration for another year?

Nick N. said...

That is a very interesting take, though I must admit I don't understand the stuff about super two. What is that? Are you saying a stint in the minors would put off arbitration for another year?

It's a little confusing. Here's the official rule:

A player is eligible for salary arbitration if he:

1. is ineligible for free agency
2. is without a contract
3. cannot agree with his current team on a new contract
4. has been on a major league roster or disabled list for at least three years

"Super Two" exception - A player with at least two years of experience may be eligible for salary arbitration if he:

1. Meets the first three requirements from above
2. Played in the majors for at least 86 days in the previous season
3. Is among the top 17 percent for cumulative playing time in the majors amongst others with at least 2 years, but less than 3 years experience


With that being the case, I'm not actually sure if the scenario laid out two comments above is correct. Liriano already has two full years plus 31 days of service time (all of 2007, all of 2006, and September of 2005), so all he would need is to spend 86+ days (a little less than half the season) with the big-league club this year to become arb-eligible next year. I think that's the case but I'm not 100 percent sure, someone please correct me if I'm wrong. I guess I'm not entirely sure about the third part of the rule -- what is the number of innings that would put Liriano in the top 17 percent?

sploorp said...

Wow! That arbitration stuff makes me dizzy, but it's given me a great idea. If Liriano is ready to play, let him.

Tricia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TT said...

"if a post Tommy John Liriano is good enough to be one of those five, so be it. If he isn't, THEN it's time to consider a minor league assignment."

I think that is right.

Liriano already has two full years plus 31 days of service time (all of 2007, all of 2006, and September of 2005), so all he would need is to spend 86+ days (a little less than half the season) with the big-league club this year to become arb-eligible next year

If those numbers are correct, starting him at Rochester for a couple months woule likely mean an extra year before he becomes a free agent. There is no "super-two" type of rule for that. Its six full seasons. One day short, and you aren't eligible.

Anonymous said...

I'm the goof who posted the original anonymous post re: Liriano and arbitration and yeah as I understand it, the last poster is absolutely correct--one day short of six years and you cannot be a free agent. Holding Liriano out of the major leagues for about 6 weeks (and I'm not exactly sure of the calculation as there are 180 or so official days in an MLB season BUT you only need something around 172 or 173 to count as a "full season" for service time) would delay his free agency by one full year. As for super two status, the commenter is correct, he probably only needs something around....90 to 100 days, somewhere in there to probably make super two status and go to arbitration, but as a super two you don't make as much as a regular "Year 4--Arb 1" player. Morneau was treated this way, this year was his 2nd go round through arbitration but only his 4th year in terms of total service time. So...I stand by my plan...send F Bomb to Rochester until mid May. There is NO reason to have him on the big league club until then unless you are still drinking the kool aid that this team can "compete" for more than a .500 record. Sorry, had to get that in...too blamed much optimism for what shapes up to be a 73 win team (blame PECOTA, not me).

sploorp said...

Anonymous said, "Liriano and arbitration and yeah as I understand it, the last poster is absolutely correct--one day short of six years and you cannot be a free agent."

I must admit, it is a very interesting thought. I had no idea it was even a possibility.

My next thought would be how everybody else on the team might perceive the move. If Liriano has a strong spring and is perceived by fans and teammates as ready to go, couldn't the bad PR come back and bite them? This team has already got a bad reputation for cheapness. The team loses Santana and Hunter, then sends what could be their ace to AAA for rehab he doesn't need, just so they can save some bucks down the line. It could get ugly. We may see even more players walk.

There was a lot of bad blood created when the Twins traded Castillo last year. The team thought they still had a chance at winning the division and were waiting for some offensive help, then management sent one of their few productive bats to the Mets. It left a bad taste in a lot of the players mouths and may have been what motivated Santana to move on.

As intriguing as the whole thing might be, it could spell big problems in the clubhouse. I'm still leaning toward my five best approach. If Liriano is one of the five best, he starts the season with the club and they let him pitch. If he is the best of the five, let him pitch opening day. If he isn't one of the five best and looks like he might need some more work, then send him to AAA.

Anonymous said...

Good statistical comparison - it would be good to know their ERAs before surgery for comparison. Were any as dominant as Liriano in his first year? (I agree that Liriano was even better than Santana that year).

Nick N. said...

Good statistical comparison - it would be good to know their ERAs before surgery for comparison. Were any as dominant as Liriano in his first year?

Definitely not. Which of course makes matters all the more interesting...

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