On Monday night, Francisco Liriano spun perhaps his most impressive gem in a season that's been full of them. Facing the Padres in San Diego, the lefty hurled seven scoreless innings, striking out 13 and allowing only four hits to pick up his 14th win of the campaign.
Through 19 starts for Pittsburgh, Liriano holds a 2.53 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 126/47 strikeout-to-walk ratio with only five home runs allowed in 121 innings. He has been, in a word, sensational -- the ace starter for a team that appears headed for the playoffs. His 13 strikeouts on Monday night were six more than any Twins pitcher has tallied in a start this season.
Meanwhile, a Minnesota team that let him walk after several maddeningly inconsistent seasons remains anchored near the bottom of the standings, with a rotation that continues to be one of the worst in the league while offering little hope for improvement.
To be sure, there are plenty of ways you can couch this situation so that it doesn't reflect quite so poorly on Twins management. He posted a 5.18 ERA during his final two seasons in Minny, and his production was essentially identical in 12 outings after being traded to the White Sox last year. He continued to hurt his own case with a bizarre offseason injury.
Of course, as the Twins and their defenders will emphasize, Liriano's success this year has come in the National League, where opposing lineups are less threatening and less familiar with the left-hander's arsenal.
Still, all of those excuses fall short with me. The NL might be an easier pitching environment but it's still the major leagues, and Liriano's performance doesn't merely look good in contrast to Minnesota's motley crew. We're talking about a Cy Young contender here. He may not be a terribly strong contender due to his late start and the assortment of incredible pitching performances in the Senior Circuit this year, but Liriano leads his league in wins and ranks among the top 10 in K/9 rate, ground ball rate, ERA, xFIP and home run rate.
Many Twins fans have taken this as another opportunity to lash out at Rick Anderson. I'm not taking that route. Anderson worked hard to straighten out the erratic southpaw and for the most part I think Frankie created his own problems. However, it was always clear from watching Liriano that he had immense talent, and he's still in the middle of his physical prime at 29 years old. Rather than gamble on that ability with minimal risk (the Pirates ended up guaranteeing him only a million dollars on a one-year deal, and now have a fairly cheap option on him for 2014 as well) the Twins chose to take the "safe" approach, going with proven veteran mediocrities like Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey -- signings that have predictably paid no dividends.
Sure, maybe Liriano would have continued down the same path had he remained in Minnesota. Maybe he wasn't even interested in staying, although it wouldn't have been too difficult to healthily outbid the Bucs. Whichever way you look at the situation, the Twins just don't come out looking good. They either failed repeatedly to help Liriano reach his potential, or screwed up by declining to take a chance on him finding it again despite their utterly desperate need for pitching.
Whatever the case, with this type of judgment it's not hard to see why the Twins have worked their way into such a pitiful state with their rotation. Developments like this it make it all the more challenging to believe that the current leadership can do what it takes to get things turned around.