When the Twins acquired Carl Pavano from the Indians on Friday to help stabilize a struggling rotation, debate immediately turned to which current Twins starter would be supplanted. It was quickly clear that the two candidates for a demotion to the bullpen were Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins, who have both struggled in recent starts while also battling various arm ailments.
That question was put to rest, at least for now, when the Twins announced that Perkins would be undergoing an MRI for his aching left shoulder and that the team will be "moving forward without him in the rotation." Liriano will draw another start in the second or third game of the Twins' upcoming series against the Royals, and will get at least one more chance to work past his severe command problems.
For some who have been pushing for Liriano's demotion to the bullpen (Sinker, Twins Geek, SBG and ubelmann, among others), I'm sure this comes as disappointing news. I tend to disagree -- I think the Twins have made the right move here, for a few reasons.
First, let me say that I agree with one of the main arguments in support of sending Liriano to the bullpen instead of Perkins, which is that Liriano is more likely to improve that unit. Many point to Liriano's strong secondary pitches and his .206/.292/.335 opposing line the first time through the batting order as reasons that the hurler has a good chance to succeed as a reliever. Those are both perfectly valid points and I fully connect with them.
But, I just think the Twins need Liriano in the rotation more right now. The Twins have gotten Quality Starts in only seven of their past 20 games, and all too often the bullpen hasn't even been put in position to hold a lead. Liriano has been frustrating to watch as of late, to be sure, but prior to his past two starts he had posted a solid 3.83 ERA in eight turns since the beginning of June, and had completed at least six innings in six of those games. It's also worth noting that this is the same, post-surgery Liriano who posted a 2.74 ERA and 60-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Twins after returning to the big-league club in early August last season. Liriano was a big part of the reason the Twins were able to hang with the White Sox and force a 163rd game last year, and they'll need him to find that form -- or something close to it -- if they're going to make a similar push this season.
If Liriano can gain some semblance of command over his fastball, he can still perform like a top-of-the-rotation starter; he proved that last year. That's a pretty big "if," but the Twins are 5.5 games out of first place and fading fast, so it's simply something they're going to have to hope for. Liriano has the stuff to miss bats and has the talent to dominate good lineups. This team is going to need him in order to make the playoffs, much less win a series there.
Moreover, I just don't trust Perkins right now. It kind of stuns me that so many people are calling for Liriano's removal from the rotation considering how Perkins has looked in his most recent outings. Two of his past three starts -- a 1 IP, 8 ER performance against Oakland and a 4 IP, 8 ER performance against the Angels -- were worse than any outing Liriano has had this season. I actually think Perkins is a solid pitcher when healthy, but I did not for one second believe he was healthy even prior to the news that he was being scheduled for a "precautionary" MRI.
I've heard people mock Perkins for the way he seemingly comes out and complains about shoulder pain after every loss ("How convenient!"), but there is legitimate reason to believe that he's been pitching through some serious pain. Perkins has dealt with shoulder issues frequently throughout his pro career, and during that pro career he had not thrown more than 150 innings in any season prior to last year, when he racked up about 180. There is every reason to believe that this significant workload increase has taken a toll on his already problematic shoulder, and that this injury is now causing him serious issues. If he were to remain in the rotation, my sense was that Perkins would either be overly susceptible to disastrous outings like the ones mentioned above, or he'd end up on the disabled list. I just don't see him lasting as a starter for the remainder of this season.
The Twins' bullpen has been a sore point all year, but right now the rotation is a greater concern. On too many occasions, the Twins' starters have not been giving the team any reasonable chance at winning. It might be a stretch to believe that Liriano is going to turn things around and find anything resembling the form he showed during the final two months of last season. But we also know he's capable of it, and if he's healthy (which is far from certain given that he missed his most recent start due to forearm soreness), there doesn't seem to be any real physical reason he can't perform in a similar manner down the stretch this season.
It's a long-shot. But I certainly like Liriano's chances of providing above-average production as a member of this rotation in the final seven weeks of the season than a sore-shouldered Perkins who, even at full health, is probably about a league-average starter.