How long before Liriano loses his job?


Francisco Liriano was utterly terrible on the mound yesterday in New York. He allowed five runs, seven hits and four walks, totals that would be high even in a six inning outing. Unfortunately, Liriano surrendered all of that in a little more than two innings. Coming on the heels of awful performances in Baltimore and against the Angels, Liriano now has a 0-2 record and a dismal 11.91 ERA this season. And it isn’t just this year. Liriano struggled mightily last season as well. This brings up the question: how much longer can the Twins tolerate Liriano’s presence in the starting rotation?

On one hand, yesterday’s contest against the Yankees was probably the worst possible combination of circumstances for Liriano. After two weak outings, the notoriously emotional southpaw needed a confidence booster to get himself back on track. Yankee Stadium, a very hostile venue that is always filled with surly, vocal Yankee fans, is a terrible environment for picking up a pitcher’s self-esteem. And the Yankees are a team perfectly built to fluster Liriano. Their lineup is packed with patient hitters who work counts. Liriano is somewhat erratic even at his best, so if opponents are not swinging at his pitches out of the strike zone, his pitch counts can rise quickly. Finally, the umpiring was less than consistent, and Liriano was arguably snubbed on a few pitches that should have been called strikes. All these factors helped prolong his nightmare and add to the Yankee run totals.

Still, those are just excuses, and if we have been making excuses for Liriano for years: “he’s a great pitcher, but he had some injury trouble, so let’s give him time.” Or, “he just needs to calm down a little,” or “he would have won that game if his slider had been a little sharper.”

At some point, the excuses will need to stop, and the Twins will need to give up on Francisco Liriano. That decision might become a little easier if Scott Diamond continues to thrive in Rochester. Diamond’s first three starts have been as good as Liriano’s have been bad – he is 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA and a respectable 14 strikeouts in 18 innings pitched. The 25 year old Diamond does not have nearly the potential that Liriano once had, but he is still young, and it might make sense for the Twins to audition him again at the Major League level to see if he’ll be a legitimate option for the team in 2013.

Liriano is a free agent after the season, so unlike Diamond, he probably will not factor into the team’s 2013 plans. Thus, he probably knows that his job is not secure. We do not know how it would affect Liriano if the Twins make it clear that he is pitching for his job. As mentioned above, he is emotional and excitable, so the extra pressure could push him over the edge and cause him to pitch worse. Or the opposite could happen. Liriano was a hair’s breadth away from losing his slot last May, until he threw a no-hitter against the White Sox. That seemed to save his job for the time being, though he stumbled the rest of the season and ended with a 5.09 ERA.

Any other pitcher with Liriano’s recent track record would have lost his job a long time ago. Liriano’s history may be the only thing saving him. He was such a phenomenal prospect when he first reached the Majors that the Twins appeared to have a guaranteed ace on their roster for years to come. For anyone who remembers that magical summer of 2006, it’s almost impossible to give up on Liriano as a pitcher. Even after five subsequent years of disappointments, there is still a last vestige of hope that he’ll suddenly shed all his problems and become the ace that we were once promised. His strong Spring Training reinforced that hope, but his first three outings of the regular season have all but killed it.

If Liriano has two or three more disappointing outings, he should get the axe.

A stint in the minors could help Liriano. The same thing happened to him in 2008. Then, as today, Liriano entered the season with injury concerns – he had missed all of 2007 rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery. His first few starts of the year were arguably even worse than this year’s. After this third start, in which he allowed six runs in less than an inning, he had an 11.32 ERA. Liriano earned a trip to AAA, where he proceeded to dominate minor league competition for several months. He earned a callup in the summer and became one of the team’s most effective hurlers in a surprise playoff run, earning a 2.91 ERA and 8.2 K/9 down the stretch.

Now that Liriano is a MLB veteran, the team cannot option him to AAA; they would have to designate him for assignment, and Liriano would have the right to refuse that assignment. But it might be in his and the Twins’ best interest for him to accept a short minor league stint. It would allow him to clear his head, tweak his mechanics, and build a little confidence again.