On Sunday afternoon, Francisco Liriano had his worst outing in his last six starts, surrendering four runs on eight hits over six innings of work for the Class-AAA Rochester Red Wings. That's the bad news. The good news? Liriano still displayed some dominance, striking out nine and walking one, and still picked up a victory, his seventh in a row. The majority of the damage in the outing came on a three-run homer, but for the most part Liriano still pitched effectively and still showed that he's ready for a promotion to the big leagues.
Of course, that much has been obvious for some time now. Over his past 11 starts in Rochester, Liriano is 10-0 with a 2.93 ERA and 80-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings of work. He's missing bats, he's limiting base-runners and he's pitching deep into games. Reports are that his velocity is creeping back up toward the mid-90s and his slider is biting again. These would be encouraging signs for any young minor-league pitcher, but they are especially exciting for Liriano, whom we watched dominate major-league hitters just two years ago.
It would certainly be unfair to expect Liriano to come up to the majors and pitch the way he did in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 144-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 121 innings. Still, it doesn't seem at all unreasonable to believe that Liriano could step in and immediately become one of the best pitchers in this rotation. This could provide a boost to the 2008 Twins similar to the one he provided the 2006 Twins. For him to continue to throw innings and dominate down in Triple-A seems nothing short of wasteful.
The issue, naturally, is that there is only room for five pitchers in the Twins' rotation and -- while it's entirely possible that Liriano would be superior to all of them -- none of the five current starters have exactly earned a demotion. Scott Baker has been excellent. Kevin Slowey pitched a complete game shutout yesterday and seems to finished with his short slump from a couple weeks ago. Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins have both consistently given the team a chance to win games. Livan Hernandez has not been terribly effective overall, but he has eaten up innings and delivered Quality Starts in four of his past seven outings.
It seems fairly clear that none of these guys belongs in the minors, so one idea that has been brought up is moving someone to the bullpen. Perkins and Blackburn both have some experience as relievers, which is why their names have been mentioned most often as candidates to move to the 'pen. Yet, this doesn't seem like the best course of action. Blackburn has been a reliable starter for this team who is second on the rotation in innings with 127 and second in ERA at 3.69; Perkins has pitched 6+ innings in seven of his past eight starts and six of those have been Quality Starts.
In my opinion, the team's wisest course of action would be to place Hernandez in the bullpen, where he can replace Brian Bass. Hernandez would likely be just about as effective as Bass in the long relief role, and keeping him on the roster means he'll be available to make a spot start for should someone get injured or jump back into the rotation if the organization deems Liriano's inning load to be getting too high for his first year back after surgery.
Of course, the other option would be placing Liriano in the bullpen. As Aaron Gleeman wrote yesterday, the Twins' relief corps hasn't been particularly strong this year and the team lacks a truly dominant setup man in front of Joe Nathan. Liriano could potentially provide the power arm this bullpen has been needing. With that said, I don't think converting Liriano to a relief role at this point is a very good idea. He's still settling in after missing a full season and re-learning how to pitch with a new ligament in his elbow; somehow asking him to change roles in the middle of a major-league pennant race doesn't seem like the best choice. Also, when throwing in short stints late in close games, there's a good chance Liriano would over-exert himself, which is a dangerous proposition considering his elbow history.
Keeping Liriano in Rochester at this point is wasteful. He's too good to be pitching down there, and the Twins could use his assistance as they pursue the White Sox in the AL Central. Unfortunately, finding a way to get him onto the big-league roster is not as clear-cut as one might like. I know what I'd do, but I'm sure the Twins view things differently. It should be interesting to see how they get Liriano onto their roster, and how soon they are able to do so.