Jim Souhan: Twins wonder which Francisco Liriano will show up this season

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2012 - 12:18 PM

Francisco Liriano has been erratic since '06, when he was brilliant.

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Francisco Liriano started the game against the Red Sox, pitching two innings and looking like the Frankie of old.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores , Star Tribune

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FORT MYERS, FLA. — The Twins better hope Francisco Liriano has an affinity for money. All other motivations seem to have failed him.

Liriano pitched two innings in his spring training debut on Sunday. He allowed two baserunners but no runs, and ended both innings by using his slider to strike out Red Sox hitters who reacted to the pitch with a level of surprise usually reserved for South Florida drivers who change lanes without signaling.

For a couple of innings, he elicited memories of Good Frankie. A glance at his career reveals lots of Bad Frankie. This season, Liriano will determine whether he's going to become Rich Frankie.

He's due to become a free agent after the season. At his best, he's a lefthander with a diving slider capable of striking out 201 batters in 191 innings, as he did in 2010. At his worst, he's a mechanical mess on par with the Pontiac Aztec.

This season, Liriano will set his market. Good Frankie would be considered a growth stock. Bad Frankie might be nothing more than a tax writeoff.

"If you get past that 3-2 slider for a walk, after that he was good,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The ball came out of his hand efficient enough. First time out there, perfect.''

I asked Gardenhire if he's figured out Liriano after six years together.

"Have you?'' Gardenhire shot back, with a smile on his face.

No.

"I'm no different than you,'' Gardenhire said. "It's a confidence thing with him. If he gets a little confused out there at times, that's when he starts to search to find things, that's when you see him really scuffle.''

If you had Liriano's slider, wouldn't you be confident?

"Very confident,'' Gardenhire said.

Instead, Liriano's demeanor remains more suited to house cat than carnivore.

It's difficult to post a 5-plus ERA when you possess a dynamic slider, and yet since 2006, Liriano has been, in order: brilliant, injured, recovering, horrid, promising and disappointing.

In 2006, he was virtually unhittable. In 2008, following surgery, he pitched well enough to suggest he could regain his earlier form.

Instead, he's posted an ERA starting with a 5 in two of three seasons. Last year, he came to spring training with a sore shoulder and managed just 134 innings pitched. He's never pitched more than 200 innings in any professional season.

"I just want to try to stay healthy and go deep in the game, not throw many pitches early in the game,'' Liriano said after the Twins' 8-3 loss to the Red Sox at JetBlue Park. "I want to go at least 200 innings.''

If he wants to perform like the ace the Twins need him to be, he'd be better off shooting for 200 strikeouts.

When Liriano has been good, or at least serviceable, he has relied on strikeouts and has pitched fearlessly. In 2006, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 4.50. His ERA was 2.16.

In 2008, his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell to 2.09 following his surgery, and his ERA rose to 3.91.

In 2009, his ratio fell to 1.88 and his ERA ballooned to a career-worst 5.80.

He rebounded in 2010, with his ratio improving to 3.47 and his ERA falling to 3.62. He finished 11th in Cy Young voting.

Last year, Liriano proved that he is untrustworthy. He showed up to spring training with a sore shoulder, admitting that he had not diligently performed his pitching exercises. He managed 134 innings, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell to 1.49. His ERA: 5.09.

"I don't think about the future right now,'' he said. "Whatever happens, happens. The main thing is just be healthy.''

Is he?

"It's a lot different than last year,'' he said. "Last year, the shoulder was bothering me a lot. Nothing's bothering me right now.''

Liriano is one year removed from his best post-surgery season and one season from free agency. If this is a career crossroads, one road leads toward riches, the other toward career ruin. You just never know which way Liriano is going to turn.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib.

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