In early February, the Star Tribune's Joe Christensen reported that the Twins may not see Francisco Liriano in their long-term future, and that they would consider trading him in the right deal. The article prompted a lot of discussion about whether the Twins would actually consider trading the talented left-hander. Would a team that claims to want to win now really trade one of the top dozen pitchers in baseball? How good is Liriano? Is he a big-time pitcher? How much money does he expect to make? 

Once spring training started, we learned that Liriano had a sore shoulder and wasn't able to throw the first few days. Then Rick Anderson called him out by saying he didn't put in the work in the offseason by doing his arm exercises. It was not the first time that Liriano has not put in his work, or that the Twins have called it out. So I think we all better understand why they don't want to just give him a long-term contract. At the same time, he is an ace-like pitcher who will make "just" $4.3 million in 2011, and even if he wins a Cy Young Award this year, he would likely make no more than $10 million in 2012.

Things were quiet on the Liriano front the last couple of weeks, but then yesterday, Bob Nightengale from USA Today tweeted, "The Yankees are keeping a close eye on #Twins starter Francisco Liriano, while Twins are keeping tabs on Yanks prospects." 

Soon after, he responded to a question by tweeting, "Yes, there is definitely a chance Liriano could be dealt this spring, particularly if Twins get key prospects back in return."

Do any of us know with certainty if Bill Smith and Brian Cashman are talking? Of course not, and for his part, Brian Cashman is trying to fan the flames. The Yankees GM said, "I'm not talking to anyone about anything right now. Nobody's available. Nobody of value, anyway."

What that quote tells me is that Cashman and the Yankees are talking to teams right now. Someone is available. Someone of value.

Where there is smoke, there is fire. Sometimes.

So, as a Twins fan, I want to know what prospects the Yankees have. To be honest, the Yankees have a handful of prospects that, put together in a package of three players, could be a terrific return for the Twins. Rumors on Monday indicated that Joba Chamberlain or Ivan Nova might be available in a deal. If those two are the big names in a Liriano trade, it will be quite disappointing.

Here is a look at some of the top prospects in the Yankees farm system:

JESUS MONTERO - C - The Crown Jewel of the Yankees minor league system, Montero is the consensus #1 prospect. There is some debate about whether the 6-4, 220 pounder will be able to play catcher in the big leagues or not due to lack of speed and mobility. Many think he will be a DH or 1B at some point. However, there is no questioning his right-handed bat which has been compared to the likes of Mike Piazza, Manny Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera. He will be 21 throughout the 2011 season. Last year at Triple-A, he hit .289/.353/.517 with 34 doubles and 21 home runs in 123 games. The past three years, I dreamed of a scenario in which Joe Mauer would catch 110 games and DH 40-45 games a year with Wilson Ramos catching those games and DHing 100 games or so. Well, Montero is a much better prospect than WIlson Ramos. MILB Prospects named Montero baseball's top prospect. Baseball America, Project Prospect and Prospect Junkies all rank Montero as the #3 prospect in all of baseball.

GARY SANCHEZ - C - When Baseball America announced its league top prospects, Sanchez was named the top prospect in the Gulf Coast League. The Twins Miguel Sano was #2. Sanchez got a $3 million bonus in 2009 to sign. He is called a Montero-like hitter who is actually a very good catcher. He will be just 18 throughout the 2011 season, and he is likely at least 3-5 years from the big leagues. In 31 GCL games last year, he hit .354/.419/.597 with 11 doubles and six home runs. Baseball America ranked him as the #30 prospect in baseball.

MANNY BANUELOS - LHP - The Yankees signed the little lefty (5-10, 155) from Mexico in 2008 for $450,000. As an 18 year old in 2009, he pitched in Low A and in 25 games (19 starts), he went 9-5 with a 2.67 ERA with 104 strikeouts in 108 innings. He missed most of the first half of the 2010 season because of an appendicitus, but he made ten starts in Tampa (Florida State League) where he went 0-3, but in 44 innings, he posted a 2.23 ERA and struck out 62 batters. Late in the year, he made three starts in Double-A Trenton and in 15.1 innings, struck out 18 and posted a 3.52 ERA. He made up some innings by being the youngest player in the Arizona Fall League. Despite his small stature, he is able to hit 94 mph with his fastball and has an above-average changeup, curveball and very good control. He will turn 20 years old in the next two weeks. Baseball America ranked him as baseball's 41st best prospect. The now-defunct AOL Fanhouse ranked him as baseball's #13 prospect.

DELLIN BETANCES - RHP - Late in March, Betances will turn 23 years old. He and Banuelos are complete opposites physically. Betances is 6-8 and 245 pounds. The Yankees drafted him in the 8th round of the 2006 draft and gave him a $1 million bonus to keep the New York native from Vanderbilt. In 2009, he had surgery to 'reinforce" his elbow. He came back in 2010 and was again throwing 92-96 mph. He also has a tremendous curveball. His changeup is average-at-best now. If he is able to develop it, he could be a top-of-the-rotation starter. If not, he could be a good starting pitcher or he could be a dominant closer. In 14 Florida State League starts in 2010, he went 8-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 77 innings. Like Banuelos, he made three starts in Double-A, and in 14 innings, he walked three and struck out 20 while posting a 3.77 ERA. 

ANDREW BRACKMAN - RHP - As we've noticed, the Twins like tall pitchers. The 6-11 Brackman played baseball and basketball at North Carolina State. The Yankees drafted him late in the first round in 2007, and soon after they signed him to a $3.35 million bonus and $4.55 million in guaranteed money (and $13 million in potential value), he had Tommy John surgery, so his progress has been a little slow. He will be 25 throughout the 2011 season. He returned in 2009 and in Low A ball, he went 2-12 witha  5.91 ERA. He began 2010 in High-A and was 5-4 with a 5.10 ERA in 12 starts and 60 innings. He made 14 Double-A starts where he went 5-7 with a much-improved 3.01 ERA in 81 innings. By season's end, his fastball was hitting 95 mph, and his best pitch is a well-above-average curveball. He is working on a slider and needs to improve his changeup, but don't forget that pitchers this tall often take a little longer to find their release point. If he continues to progress and finds consistent mechanics, he could be a very good starter. If not, he could be a very good reliever.

Those are the five Yankees prospects that are consistently in mentioned as top prospects, but they are not it. The Yankees have several other intriguing prospects.

Austin Romine - C - Another top catching prospect, Baseball America ranked him in their Top 100 prospects. His brother, Andrew, debuted with the Angels in 2010, and their father, Kevin, played in 331 games for the Red Sox between 1985 and 1991. Austin will be 22 throughout the 2011 season. Nothing about his game jumps out, but he is a good defensive catcher and has shown some power.

Hector Noesi - RHP - He just turned 24 years old. After missing most of 2007 and 2008 because of Tommy John, he returned in 2009 and went 6-4 with a 2.92 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP between Low-A and High-A. He was added to the 40 man roster, and in 2010, he pitched in Hi-A, Double-A and ended the season with three starts in Triple-A. Combined, he was 14-7 with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP. In 160.1 innings, he struck out 153 and walked just 28. He profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation because of his control and a terrific changeup. He kind of looks like a typical Twins prospect.

Adam Warren - RHP - He was the Yankees fourth-round pick in 2009 out of North Carolina. In 2010, he went 7-5 with a 2.22 ERA in 15 starts in High-A, before he was promoted and went 4-2 with a 3.15 ERA in Double-A. Combined, he walked just 33 and struck out 126 in 135.1 innings. He is 23 years old and throws his fastball between 90 and 94 mph.

Slade Heathcott - OF - Another high-ceiling, toolsy outfield prospect, he hasn't put up numbers yet, but many believe that he will develop a great speed-power combination with a good outfield arm (although his season ended early due to shoulder surgery). He will be 20 throughout 2011.  

Eduardo Nunez - SS - OK hitting, solid defending shortstop who profiles as a utility infielder who could be an adequate starter down the road. The 23 year old will be a utility player for the Yankees in 2011 (he got 50 at bats in 30 games in 2010) and could play some in the outfield too.

Brett Marshall - RHP - He was a 6th round pick in 2008 out of his Texas high school, and after 17 starts in 2009, he had Tommy John surgery. Pre-surgery, he was touching 96 mph. He returned in 2010 and made 15 starts. He has a very good slider.

Ivan Nova went 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA for the Yankees in 2010 The 24 year old made 23 AAA starts last year and went 12-3 with a 2.86 ERA. His fastball touches 95 mph with sink, and he has a curveball, a slider and a changeup. He could be a solid fourth starter for a big league team. However, if the Twins are going to consider trading a pitcher of the caliber and age of Francisco Liriano, then the Twins need to get at least two of those top five prospects and someone like Joba Chamberlain who could help in 2011.

If the Twins could get Jesus Montero, either Dellin Betances or Manny Banuelos, Hector Noesi, and someone like Chamberlain or David Robertson, it would be a good trade for the Twins. In the long term. But it would not be good for the 2011 Twins, and fans would likely not respond well. Maybe at the end of the day, Twins fans won't need to know these names afterall, but it doesn't hurt to get to know them.

And hey, with all this talk about getting past the Yankees in the playoffs, can we at least investigate a possible Liriano deal to the St. Louis Cardinals first, before jumping to the Yankees?