It's Chicago's turn to try to solve Frankie Enigma

The Twins never could figure out how to harness Liriano's potential; Chicago gets its first crack at that challenge Tuesday, when Liriano is scheduled to face the Twins.

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Francisco Liriano was 50-52 with a 4.33 ERA in seven seasons with the Twins.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Francisco Liriano, a former All-Star and one of the most talented pitchers the Twins ever had, is also an unfinished project. The league knows it. We know it. Even he knows it.

Liriano was asked during a conference call Sunday to reflect on seven seasons with the Twins, particularly how he was so up and down in his career.

"Yes, like you said," Liriano replied. "Up and down."

He's no longer a Twins project, as Liriano was dealt Saturday night to the Chicago White Sox for two minor leaguers. Don Cooper, Chicago's well-respected pitching coach, has two months to get Liriano to pitch up to his potential -- and pitch the White Sox into the postseason.

Rick Anderson, the well-respected Twins pitching coach, tried and tried again to get Liriano to harness all of his talent. Plenty of talks. Extra bullpen sessions. Mechanical tweaks. The Twins never were able to stop Liriano from totally twisting off the mound at the end of this delivery, but it's not as bad now as it was when he tore up the league in 2006 for a 12-3 record and 2.16 ERA before injuring his elbow in August and eventually needing Tommy John surgery.

One the great unknowns is what would have happened in the playoffs that season if Liriano and Johan Santana had been in the same rotation.

Liriano, 50-52 in his career, missed all of 2007 because of surgery and spent most of 2008 in the minors. He was expected to return to form in 2009 but went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA.

Then came 2010, when he was 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA, and the Twins felt Frankie was back. But he regressed last year to 9-10 and 5.09, and he began this season looking like he had no ability to throw quality strikes.

Despite his inconsistency, opponents still admired his ability. Before the 2010 season, both Toronto and the Yankees approached the Twins about trading for Liriano, then the Yankees tried again before the 2011 season.

Most of Liriano's problems appeared to be mental. Anderson and Twins catchers invested much time into trying to get him to calm down and throw strikes. When Liriano is ahead in the count, he's unstoppable.

"See all this gray hair?" Anderson said. "It was frustrating for me. You wanted him to do well. If he does well, we do well."

Liriano's start this season -- 0-5 with a 9.45 ERA -- led to him being sent to the bullpen. When given a chance to return to the rotation, he seemed more poised, as he posted a 2.84 ERA over 10 starts.

But in 30-plus starts over a regular season, the Twins couldn't be sure what they were getting in 15 of them. Liriano could be as dominant as any pitcher in the game. Then the other streak would come, and you'd wonder who stole his uniform.

So the Twins moved him Saturday for infielder Eduardo Escobar and lefthander Pedro Hernandez, who aren't considered top prospects.

Now it's Cooper's turn to see if he can guide Liriano through the heat of a pennant race.

"He has thrown some games against us that have been lights-out outstanding," White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams said during a conference call. "The last time out for him we saw some things we think can immediately bring him some better results."

Liriano can go from breaking the Twins' hearts so many times through the years to breaking their bats on Tuesday, the day the White Sox have penciled him in to face the Twins at Target Field.

"I wish I could say I was looking forward to that," Twins outfielder Denard Span said, "but I'm really not. So we will see."

La Velle E. Neal III • lneal@startribune.com

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