You may have heard by now that embattled left-hander Francisco Liriano is set to return to the Twins’ starting rotation Wednesday when the Twins face the Oakland A’s. This may be the clearest sign yet that the Twins are pulling out all the stops in the quest for the first overall pick in the 2013 draft.
The return is anything but triumphant, as Liriano’s pitching has not markedly improved since being booted to the bullpen three weeks ago. Sure, his ERA has dropped by almost a full run since then, but that is a less impressive accomplishment when you consider that it started at 9.45 (it is now 8.47). In 7.1 innings of relief, he has allowed seven hits and seven walks, proving that he has neither regained his unhittable slider nor discovered the location of the mythical “strike zone” he has heard so much about. Liriano managed to avoid allowing any runs in his first four relief appearances, but he made up for it on Friday by allowing four Tigers to cross home plate. In a textbook example of Twins’ style decision-making, the team announced the next day that he deserved to make another start.
From this we can conclude one of two things: either this team has a secret love affair with awful pitchers, or they have abandoning all chance of winning 70+ games in 2012.
Only a fool or an incurable optimist would think the Twins still have a chance to compete for a playoff slot. But if they were instead aiming for a respectable finish, the kind that would keep some fans in the seats, they could have turned to a more competent left-hander for that rotation slot. Brian Duensing has been excellent for the Twins this year, pitching to a 2.92 ERA in 21 appearances. Aside from one bad outing last Thursday, in which he surrendered a grand slam to Alejandro DeAza, Duensing has been nearly unhittable this season. The most common reason cited for exiling Duensing to the bullpen is that he struggles against right-handed hitters, but this year righties have just a .240/.296/.300 line against him in 54 plate appearances. And Duensing has succeeded as a starter before. In 2009 and 2010 he helped right the ship by taking the ball every fifth day down the stretch. He encountered some trouble as a starter in 2011, true, but his struggles do not come close to matching those of Liriano.
The more games Liriano starts, the better the Twins’ chances of realizing their dream and securing the first pick next year. As of Sunday morning, the Twins are tied with the Chicago Cubs at 15-31 for the worst record in baseball. But San Diego (17-31) and Colorado (17-28) are nipping at their heels.
We’ll be watching the draft pick race closely all season. In the meantime, Liriano and the Twins have a chance to break a team record. As La Velle E. Neal of the Star Tribune pointed out, Twins’ starters are on pace to smash the team single-season record for highest ERA. Back in 1995, such illustrious former Twins as Jose Parra, Frankie Rodriguez, and Mike Trombley (as well as a young, inexperienced Brad Radke and an aging Kevin Tapani) led the starting staff to a 6.11 ERA. This year’s starters are way ahead of that goal, with a 6.60 mark heading into Sunday’s game. I like to imagine that the 1995 pitchers get together for drinks every year like the 1972 Miami Dolphins to celebrate their record standing another season, but that probably does not happen.
It’s a good thing, too, because with Liriano back in the mix, their record doesn’t stand a chance.