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Ace in the hole

  • Blog Post by: Nick Nelson
  • October 26, 2010 - 11:30 PM

I've touched briefly on the subject of a contract extension for Francisco Liriano a couple times, both in a guest post on Rob Neyer's SweetSpot blog at ESPN.com back in early August and in my offseason blueprint which appears in the GM Handbook.

Today, I'd like to delve a little deeper into the matter, as I feel that it is arguably the team's top priority this winter.

One of the main talking points among fans frustrated by the Twins' early playoff exit is the need for a legitimate ace to head the rotation. Fans watched the Twins' starters helplessly bow to the Yankees' potent hitters during the ALDS while Cliff Lee has shredded every lineup he's faced in helping carry the Rangers to a World Series berth, so that reaction is understandable.

However, many people seem to have a vague and mystical conception of what an "ace" is. It's not Liriano, they say, because while he was one of the league's most dominant pitchers this year (fifth in the American League in strikeouts, sixth in ground ball rate, best home run rate in baseball), he wasn't consistent enough, didn't pitch deep enough into games, and -- most importantly -- didn't come through in the postseason.

The problem is that you can count on one hand the number of pitchers who would satisfy that definition of an ace. There's only one Cliff Lee, folks. And while you can add Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and perhaps a few others to the list of consistently dominant starting pitchers who have outstanding postseason track records, these guys don't grow on trees. They are extremely tough to come by.

Take a look at a couple top Cy Young contenders in the AL and how they performed in the playoffs this year. CC Sabathia was not at all sharp, posting a 5.63 ERA and 1.81 WHIP over three starts. David Price went 0-2 with a 4.97 ERA for the Rays. Liriano's first five innings against the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS were probably better than any stretch of pitching by either of those two this October.

Things came unraveled for Liriano in the sixth inning against a good offense, but that happens often to pitchers in the playoffs, even the ones that can legitimately be labeled aces. And while Liriano's inconsistency and inefficiency on the mound are marks against him, let's not forget that this was his first full, strong season since Tommy John surgery and he's still only 27 years old (younger than any pitcher I've mentioned in this article, save for Price and Lincecum). It's hardly fair to assume we've seen the best of him.

Aces are exceedingly difficult to come across and Liriano gives the Twins their best shot at having one over the next several years, so it's imperative that they keep him under team control. He's entering his second year of arbitration this offseason, so the Twins have the option of either continuing to go year-to-year with him or offering a multi-year deal.

In the Handbook, I suggest that the Twins sign Liriano to a three-year, $21 million deal. They pay him $4 million in 2011 (a bit less than he'd probably get through arbitration), $7 million in 2012 and buy out his first season of free agency in 2013 for $10 million. For a pitcher capable of the Liriano's dominance, that's a bargain, and considering his history of arm troubles I have to think that the southpaw would jump at the financial security. The downside, for him, is that if he starts to flourish his big payday comes one year later (when he'll still only be 31 -- younger than Lee is now) and the upside is that he's guaranteed $21 million no matter what happens to his arm.

It seems clear that Liriano wore down at the end of the year. Halfway through September, he was 14-7 with a 3.28 ERA, positioning himself as a sneaky Cy Young contender, but over his final four starts (including the playoffs) he went 0-3 with a 7.58 ERA. Given that Liriano racked up such a large workload between winter ball, spring training, the regular season and the playoffs, that shouldn't come as a huge surprise. But it doesn't really affect his long-term outlook, and in fact, the experience of logging all those innings may ultimately be beneficial for his arm strength. Now that he can finally spend an offseason resting rather than rehabbing or pitching in winter ball, I suspect he'll come out better than ever next season.

If that happens, he'll be a lot more expensive a year from now. Bill Smith would be wise to show foresight and buy low on the left-hander. The reward far outweighs the risk.

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