Minnesota Twins sign Rich Harden; Pittsburgh Pirates sign Francisco Liriano


Look at his arm! No wonder he has issues. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Two interesting things happened on this cold Friday morning.  First, the Minnesota Twins signed starting pitcher Rich Harden to a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training.  Second, La Velle E. Neal of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that the Pittsburgh Pirates signed former Twin Francisco Liriano to a 2 year, 14 million dollar contract.  Each move is interesting for different reasons.  Let’s start with the new Twin.

Harden missed all of 2012 after having shoulder surgery in January of 2012.  Harden is only 31 years old, and has pitched in parts of 9 seasons.  Only pitching parts of seasons is definitely one of the knocks on Harden.  He pitched a career high 189 innings for the Oakland Athletics in 2004, in only his second season in the majors.  Since then, he has only thrown more than 100 innings 3 times.  He did have an ERA+ over 200 in 2008 and an ERA+ of 109 in 2009.  He only threw 140 or so innings those years, but gave his teams some value when available.   The one thing Harden has consistently done in his career is strike out batters.  His career strikeout rate is 24.2%, much higher than the 17.4% league average.

Harden is a low risk, but potentially high reward type of signing.  When Harden has been healthy, he has shown the ability to strike out a lot of batters.  He will never have a good walk rate; even at his peak his walk rate was above league average.  In a lot of ways, peak Rich Harden was an anti-Twin, with lots of strikeouts and walks, and few ground balls.  However, if there is a 31-year-old, often injured pitcher out there with upside, Harden might be that player.  If he can’t show that he is healthy and effective in Spring Training, he can easily be released or reassigned.  No fuss, no muss.  I like it.

This morning is also notable because Francisco Liriano somehow signed a 2 year, 14 million dollar contract with the Pirates.  I’ll just write about dogs while you finish up laughing.  Dogs are great; wonderful companions.  They make people happy, so that is nice.  Also, some can be taught really great tricks.  Dogs are outstanding.  Ok, all done laughing?  Wait!  Maybe this isn’t as hilarious as most Twins fans might think.

Liriano is still just 29 years old.  I feel like he has been around forever, but he is still relatively young.  7 million dollars per year is higher than I would have expected, but not exactly a crippling amount of money for any team.  Joe Blanton got roughly that same contract, and he has considerably less upside and reasonably similar stats.  Like Harden, Liriano has always been able to get strikeouts.  Like Harden, Liriano struggles with control at times.  Unlike Harden, Liriano is locked into a contract now.  However, if Liriano ever were to harness what he even showed in 2010, this would be a bargain.  I’m not sure that will happen, but it’s probably worth the risk for a team like Pittsburgh that has some stud pitchers coming up through their minor league system.

I thought that a lot of the mental issues that were brought up regarding Liriano were a bit overblown.  Many seemed to imply that if Liriano was left to his own devices, he would just wander aimlessly through the infield, pausing to throw a pitch or two here and there.  Drew Butera was often given a lot of credit for calming Liriano down and getting him focused, as if Liriano was some renegade horse who needed to be broken.  The odds are that Liriano’s struggles were more physical than mental.  Isn’t it possible that Liriano just lost some of his stuff after having a major surgery?  I always bristled at the mental concerns, as no one ever gave any proof at all to support them.

I’ll always remember 2006 Francisco Liriano and the way he set the Twins landscape on fire.  He was the best pitcher in baseball during that brief stretch and it is truly a shame that his arm couldn’t support his stuff.  The Pirates are not getting 2006 Liriano, and probably aren’t even getting 2010 Liriano.  However, if I had to choose between 2 years and $10 million of Kevin Correia or 2 years and $14 million of Liriano, I’d take Liriano and his crazy horse sense.  At least it would be a way to justify keeping the wrangler Drew Butera on the roster.