FORT MYERS, FLA. - This is a popular question as the 2012 season approaches: What are the Twins going to do with Francisco Liriano?

The answer doesn't affect the short term -- Liriano will start the second game on April 7 in Baltimore -- but what happens when the Twins get to late July and the 28-year-old lefthander is a couple of months from free agency?

Liriano's salary is $5.5 million. Previously, a team with a valuable commodity looking at free agency had two options: trade him by the July 31 non-waiver deadline or offer arbitration after the season and get draft compensation if the player signed elsewhere.

The rule changed with the new collective bargaining agreement: a team must offer a free agent a one-year deal for $12.5 million in order to get draft compensation.

You would guess the Twins would oppose that change -- since they haven't been a club to throw around $12.5 million offers carelessly. Yet when General Manager Terry Ryan was asked about this Wednesday, he said:

"I think that's OK. It gives you an opportunity to retain [a player], but it's also going to keep some of those extra choices away from clubs that didn't really need help.''

Ryan was referring to the ease with which teams -- even the big spenders --were able to pick up "sandwich picks'' between the first and second rounds for losing free agents.

With the new rule, even the Yankees aren't going to be offering $12.5 million to one of their free agents unless he's a key player.

There's also the assumption that the Twins aren't going to offer a $12.5 million to a pitcher with Liriano's erratic record --which would mean they have to trade him this summer, right?

Not so fast.

Following the conversation with Ryan, I mentioned the Liriano situation to another Twins official, and he said: "If he pitches this season like we've seen down here, he could be offered $12.5 million. One-year deals don't mess you up. And if he goes and gets a three- or four-year deal for big money from another club, we get two draft choices.''

That would be a $7 million raise for Liriano if he were to say yes to a Twins' one-year offer. That might not seem feasible, until you remember that Carl Pavano ($8.5 million) and Scott Baker ($6.5 million) are making a combined $15 million this season and could be allowed to depart for 2013.

Let's face it: As unpredictable as he remains, Liriano is the best shot for the Twins to have an ace starter going forward.

Liriano had a horrible 2009 season, pitched 50 innings in the Dominican winter league and came back to go 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 2010. He didn't pitch winter ball in 2011, had shoulder soreness in spring training and was again awful: 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA.

The Twins decided not to move him at low value. They decided to give him another shot. Liriano pitched 25 innings in the Dominican League last winter and has been healthy and sharp this spring.

On Wednesday, Liriano faced the Phillies in his sixth spring start. The line wasn't great -- four-plus innings, eight hits, two runs, one walk, three strikeouts -- but the delivery was smooth through 82 pitches.

Liriano's numbers in Florida remain promising: 22 innings, 18 hits, four walks, 26 strikeouts and a 2.45 ERA.

"As soon as I got here, I felt really good,'' Liriano said. "Everything has been going the way I wanted.''

The Phillies did see a few pitches up and in the middle of the plate in the last couple of innings. No problem. Other than an outing two weeks ago vs. Toronto, there has been none of the flying around in his delivery that gets Liriano in such trouble.

"He has three excellent pitches: fastball, changeup and slider,'' Ryan said. "He works at it as hard as anybody. Everything you look for in a pitcher, he's got. Now, let's just put it all together.''

If that happens, there will be a large market for Liriano in July. And even then, the Twins wouldn't have to move him since $12.5 million for one year could be doable.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM.