Bummed out after a losing season and stressed out over their various contract issues, the Twins keep getting reports from Fort Myers, Fla., which brighten their days.
"The Franchise" is getting stronger.
Francisco Liriano, a 2006 All-Star as a rookie who missed the 2007 season after having Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in November, threw 30 light pitches from a mound again Monday, repeating drills he has done for about two weeks.
The Twins might not know if free agents Torii Hunter or Carlos Silva will be back next season, and they might not know if they will have Johan Santana or Joe Nathan beyond 2008, but Liriano remains on schedule to be back at full strength for spring training.
"I don't want to get too excited and say he's going to be our No. 2 or 3 starter," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "A lot has to happen before that comes around. I'm not really penciling him in at anything yet until we get to spring training and see how he's doing."
Even if the 2008 forecast is uncertain, the Twins believe Liriano can become an even better pitcher who is less susceptible to injury, thanks to adjustments he has made since the surgery.
Liriano went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a rookie in 2006, prompting teammates to nickname him "The Franchise." He struck out 144 batters in 121 innings, but he did it with a violent pitching delivery and an overdose of sliders.
Anderson has stressed the need to throw more fastballs and changeups. Liriano is getting good practice, throwing nothing but those two pitches during this stage of his rehab.
The next big step is throwing live batting practice in November, but even if all goes well, Liriano won't throw his next breaking pitches until January. Meanwhile, he is working on balance drills designed to keep his motion more under control.
He also is studying video of days he had good mechanics and bad mechanics, said Twins minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp, who works with Liriano in Fort Myers.
"He's a very bright fella," Knapp said. "His main interest is making sure he can pitch a full season next year."
Though Liriano was hoping to pitch winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, the Twins persuaded him to stay in Fort Myers and save his next competitive pitches for spring training.
To say Liriano will come back as a different pitcher is a stretch. But fans will notice one difference right away: After pitching at 201 pounds last season, the 6-2 Liriano weighs about 220, and most of the added weight is muscle.
"He's starting to mature, not only mentally but physically," said former Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who assumed his new role as a special adviser Monday. "You can see the definition, and the width of his shoulders. He's a big man. He was a big man two years ago when he was skinny."
It's not just upper-body strength, either. Pitchers rely more on their legs than most people know. Knapp said Liriano has focused on core-body strength and lower-body flexibility, two areas where he lagged before the injury.
Add it up, and the Twins believe Liriano's best years still are ahead of him. He turns 24 on Oct. 26.