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Monday (What to do with Francisco Liriano) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand under Target Field Updated: February 14, 2011 - 9:25 AM

On the surface, the thought of the Twins trading away left-handed starter Francisco Liriano might seem ridiculous. This is a team that desperately needs an ace if it is to shake off its postseason woes. So what sense does trading away the closest thing you have to an ace ... a guy who still could be getting better and could develop into a true No. 1 starter ... and the pitcher who, both by default but on merit, got the ball for Game 1 of the ALDS a few months ago?

The flip side, of course, is what our guy Joe C wrote (bold for emphasis):

We'll see how Liriano responds to this week's news that the Twins are open to trading him. Like usual, Smith isn't touching that topic, but since writing this report, I've had team officials remind me that they'll listen to trade offers for anyone, not just Liriano. I was also told that Liriano's camp did not specifically ask for a three-year, $39 million contract. I'd heard those numbers from a source but tried to be clear I couldn't be sure about the specifics. (Presumably, that would have been a three-year extension for Liriano added to this year's $4.3 million, which would give him a four-year deal similar to the ones Zack Greinke and Josh Johnson have signed in recent years.) Again, I don't have the specifics. Apologies for the confusion, but the larger premise still holds: Long-term talks with Liriano have gone nowhere, he doesn't appear to be in the Twins plans past 2012, and they are open to trading him, as soon as next month.

Framed like that, it becomes a two-sided question based both in philosophy and pragmatism. If you are the Twins, and you are convinced -- or at least have a notion -- that for as talented as Liriano is, his arm history combined with erratic year-to-year and start-to-start performance and (small sample size, yes) that his inability to lock down the Yankees when given a lead in the ALDS goes back to a lack of mental toughness ... well, do you try to flip him now while his value is high? Even if the tempting answer is "yes" to that question, the Twins must then ask a more practical one. If pitching will be the key to contention in 2011, and it is implausible that you would get as much big-league ready mound talent in return, then how do you -- the Twins -- view this season?

The fact that the Twins are open to dealing -- and talking about dealing -- Liriano before the start of the season possibly gives us some interesting hints about not just how they view the big lefty, but also how they view this year. A certain kind of deal could net a couple of pieces ready to help right away, but not the pitcher they need in the postseason. The better deal would probably involve more high-level pieces that are close to being big-league ready but who might be a year or two away.

With Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel signed only through this season and with the option of buying out Joe Nathan after this year, the Twins have a chance to seriously remake themselves for 2012 -- even with Joe Mauer's big money eating up a big chunk of payroll. Do you keep Liriano and hope he develops further into the kind of starter worth a big-money, long-term commitment? Or do you sell now, knowing curiously that the best chance you might have at developing an ace for the future might be in trading the best chance you have for an ace in the present?

When you think about the Twins' vulnerabilities this season (their roster has stayed much the same, Justin Morneau and Nathan are still question marks, and the AL Central has improved around them), loading up for 2012 and beyond doesn't seem that crazy. In the end, if the right deal for Liriano came along, we would do it. But even if it did look like a good long-term trade, we wouldn't want to be the GM walking the Target Field concourses in 2011.

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