It's probably no secret to people who read this blog often, but I'm a huge Francisco Liriano fan. While I feel nervous about what to expect from a number of Twins players this season, I feel supremely confident that Liriano will be one of the top pitchers in the American League.
He's 27, he's four years removed from surgery and -- for the first time in his Twins career -- he's had a full offseason to rest up. No rehab from injury, no winter ball. Liriano's arm should be as strong as ever this year, and that should help him last deeper into games and avoid wearing down at the end of the season again.
In 2010, Liriano was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, but his ERA and win/loss record stayed in check -- in part due to an inflated batting average on balls in play. His unremarkable core numbers have made him something of a well-kept secret, but that secret is likely to get out this year if his BABIP normalizes and he keeps racking up the strikeouts and ground balls.
If that's the case, the Twins may be missing their last chance to lock up the left-hander at a reasonable rate by opting for a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. I've been calling a long-term contract for Liriano the team's top priority since last August, but it seems that -- like with so many things this offseason -- the Twins brass sees it differently than me.
While chatting with fellow TwinsCentric blogger Seth Stohs at Twins Fest, Bill Smith acknowledged the downside of going year-to-year with Liriano: "We definitely recognize the risk in doing that and if he has another big year, it will cost us some money."
I don't presume the Twins want to cost themselves money, so the above quote indicates to me that they're not fully confident in the durability of Liriano's arm. I have a hard time understanding why, given that he's averaged 175 innings in his three seasons since Tommy John surgery and was hitting 96 mph in the playoffs last year, but I guess they have more insight on the subject than me. It's fair to say his arm is fragile; he had a lengthy injury history prior to his torn ligament (part of the reason the Twins got him so cheaply) and does go through periodic dead arm spells.
But those facts are all the more reason for Liriano to accept a multiyear deal right now and guarantee himself the first big payday of his career. Hammering out a contract with Liriano two years from free agency and coming off a good-not-great season gives the Twins an opportunity to negotiate from a position of leverage, but for whatever reason they seem perfectly willing to pass on it. I suppose I shouldn't get too worked up about it -- it's not my money -- but I wonder about the implications if Liriano goes on to enjoy a healthy and spectacular 2011 campaign, as I expect he will.
With core numbers that match his ace-caliber peripherals, he would become a much hotter commodity, viewed around the league in the same category as David Price, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. And, with only one more year standing between Liriano and free agency, leverage will have shifted largely to his side. At that point, the Twins will face the difficult decision of meeting the potentially exorbitant demands of Liriano's agent, or risking the loss of another prime-aged lefty ace.
Of course, if Liriano doesn't have a great year, these points are mostly moot and it probably ends up being a fine decision. I admit that my opposition to this course of action is completely vested in the notion that he'll take another step forward this year, which could easily be wrong. Maybe he'll get hurt. But injuries are almost impossible to predict for pitchers. When the Twins handed totally unnecessary long-term contracts to Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn, both of those pitchers seemed to be in fine health, but neither has had a fully healthy or productive season since inking the dotted line. Given an opportunity to gain similar cost certainty with Liriano, a far more irreplaceable asset, it appears they'll opt to let things play out year-by-year, gambling that the southpaw won't continue his ascent and price himself right out of their budget.
Between Baker, Blackburn, Joe Mauer, Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer, the Twins have handed out a lot of bloated contract extensions to their own players in recent years that haven't turned out to be particularly team-friendly (at least so far). Liriano's situation struck me as a chance to buck that trend. Whiffing on the opportunity to reach a long-term pact with the only ace-caliber pitcher in the entire organization on somewhat team-friendly terms while his value is superficially low hits me as another misguided decision in an offseason that has featured far too many.