Francisco Liriano from San Cristoba in the Dominican Republic signed with the San Francisco Giants as a 16 year old in 2000. He was an outfielder, but moved to the mound after the Giants found out he tossed a mid-90s fastball. “The Giants told me they would give me more money if I pitch, so I said I would,” Liriano told the NY Times Michael Schmidt. “But they had never seen me pitch. I didn’t like it, but all I wanted to do was play."
San Fran sent him stateside, and after four months of bullpen sessions, the 17 year old made his pro debut for the Arizona League Rookie Giants, the West Coast version of the GCL. The young lefty went 5-4/3.63 with 67 K in 62 IP, a pretty strong start. Liriano touched 96, and Baseball America ranked him as the Giants’ 14th best prospect in his debut season.
In 2002, the G-Men moved him along to Hagerstown in the Low A Sally League, and he put up a 3-6/3.49 count with 85 K in 80 frames. His heater was consistently in the 93 MPH range, and his secondary pitches were coming along well for a converted OF, jumping him up to a #4 rating by BA. But a career-long problem made its first appearance as he was shut down late in July with shoulder problems.
His wing gave out completely in 2003. He worked just nine innings, plus a handful of late-season rehab starts in the Instructional League, where he looked strong. Liriano was then welcomed to the baseball biz when he, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser were shipped to the Twins for AJ Pierzynski and cash. Looking back, Brian Sabean would probably like a mulligan on that one (the Giants released Pierzynski after a season).
Liriano started out at High A Fort Myers in the Florida League for the Twins. He went 6-7/4.00 with 125 punchouts in 117 innings. He stepped up to AA New Britain in the Eastern League for seven starts, and did pretty well, going 3-2/3.18 with 45 K in 39-2/3 frames. He showed a big hook and his slider was becoming his plus pitch, so it was a pretty good year, especially after the injury-lost 2003 year. BA kept up the love, listing him as the Twins #5 prospect.
2005 was his breakout year. Starting at New Britain, he went 3-5/3.64 with 92 whiffs in 76-2/3 innings. Then he advanced to AAA Rochester of the International League, and put up a 9-2/1.78 line with 112 K in 91 IP and a WHIP of 0.88. Liriano was named the IL Rookie of the Year. He led all minor league pitchers in strikeouts, with 204 in just 167-2/3 frames, or 11 per game.Minny noticed and called him up in September; where his ERA was high but he collected 33 strikeouts in 23-2/3 innings.
The Cisco Kid was blazing along with a 95 MPH heater and a killer slider. BA rated him the best prospect in the Twins’ system and the Eastern League, and the second best (after Delmon Young) in the IL. John Sickels picked him as the #2 pitching prospect in baseball.
In 2006, Liriano opened the season in the bullpen, a move he didn't exactly endorse, before joining the Twins rotation in late May. He was on fire, getting off to a 12-3/2.19 start and was named Rookie of the Month twice in the AL. The Cisco Kid was named to the All-Star game by Ozzie Guillén to replace José Contreras. Talk of "The Franchise" winning both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year filled the media as he finished the season by mowing down 144 batters in 121 IP.
Too good to be true? You betcha.
The Twin City staff put him on the DL in early August with elbow inflammation problems, partially of his own doing as he tried to pitch through soreness through July without notify management that he had an issue. Minnesota diagnosed him with a mild elbow ligament strain and shoulder weakness, but after a layoff and one September start, Liriano had Tommy John surgery to replace his ulnar collateral ligament. He missed all of 2007, and some mark the surgery as the turning point of his career.
In 2008, he got off to a slow start with Minnesota and was sent to the bushes to knock off the rust. Working for Rochester, he went 10-2/3.28 and was called back to the show. Liriano finished up 6-4/3.91, not a bad bounce back after TJ surgery. But for the first time, the lefty had fewer whiffs than innings (even though he still had a solid 7.9 per game and would come back strong in future years), and his control became a problem, with nearly four walks per nine innings.
Liriano's following season was completely forgettable. He went 5-13/5.80, and all his indicators were down. He lost a couple or three miles of velocity off his heater, he gave up more hits than innings pitched for the first (and only) time in his career, gave up 1.4 HRs per nine and walked 4.3 batters per game while K'ing eight. Also for the first time since his rookie 2005 campaign, his FIP (4.87) and ERA (5.80) showed a big spread, a phenomena that would hound him almost every following season.
There were some questions about Liriano's conditioning and rehab, so during the 2009 offseason, Liriano returned to the DR to play winter ball. He came to camp lighter, and gave the staff the sense that he was ready to go. The Twins considered using Liriano as a closer to replace the injured Joe Nathan and save his arm, but opted to add him to the rotation. Pretty good move.
Liriano tossed up a 14-10/3.62 slash in 2010, with 201 whiffs in 191-1/3 IP. His fastball was back and all his peripherals showed improvement - K's, walks, HRs, and hits. The walks and groundball rate showed the most dramatic upticks - he cut the walks down by a third and his grounder rate jumped from 40% to 54%. He was named the American League Pitcher of the Month for April to start the year, and ended as the 2010 AL Comeback Player of the Year.
But he couldn't come up with back-to-back big seasons. The lefty went 9-10/5.09 in 2011, with his whiff rate and fastball velocity both down. To make matters worse, he was on the DL from late May to mid-June with shoulder inflammation; he came back again, but in late August had a shoulder strain, pretty much ending the campaign for him but for a couple of late season mop-ups. Liriano did have a moment, though - on May 3rd, he no-hit the Oakland As 1-0 (walking six). Not only did he pick up a no-no, but it was (and is) his only MLB complete game.
2012 was more of the same. Minnesota flipped him to the White Sox at the deadline, and he threw equally poorly for both clubs. His line was 6-12/5.34, and for the second straight year, he walked five guys per game. The groundball rate dropped to 44% and he surrendered 19 HR. His velocity did pick up a tick, and Loriano struck out better than a batter per frame again, but not enough to get either team to invite him back into the fold.
So the Bucs signed him as a free agent in December, but the whole thing went on ice after an arm injury. They're reported to have resigned him, with some of the money flipped from guaranteed to incentive-based earnings. The FO overpaid at $12.75M, and the two year deal was twice as long than you'd expect for a bounce back guy. But that's the way of life for small revenue teams, especially ones that don't win - they have to overpay even flawed guys if they have enough upside to lure them to town.
Make no mistake, Liriano does have upside, sprinkled liberally with frustrating inconsistency. His fastball sits in the 91-94 range, which is sweet for a lefty. His slider is a plus pitch, and he throws a league average or slightly better change up. His K's still come fairly often, though the five walks per game doesn't cut it. But stuff isn't his problem.
Maybe health issues have kept him from becoming consistent. Before his TJ surgery, Liriano was 12-5/2.65 ERA; afterward, 40-48/4.68. That's a small sample size, but suggestive.
He handles lefties much better than righties; his lifetime slash against LH is .227/.301/.296; against righties .254/.335/.409. That's not too surprising. Liriano's slider is his go-to pitch, and it's much more effective against lefties. His change up is the pitch he shows RH, and it's not nearly as dominant. So that may play into his problems.
The Cisco Kid, as we mentioned before, has a sizable spread between his ERA (4.40) and FIP (3.75). His ERA has bettered his FIP just once in his career, in his standout 2006 campaign. It's lasted so long that's it hard to blame the gap on sampling size or old fashioned bad luck. His home run, walk and ground ball rates, along with LOB%, have been at or below league average every season with the exception of his 2006 and 2010 years, so maybe FIP overvalues strikeouts, understates walks or a bit of both.
The Pirates are aware that he's inconsistent with his mechanics, and the LOB % might indicate that Liriano could use some work on his stretch. Those are the early tweaks for Ray Searage to address, once he finally gets the lefty in camp. His conditioning is a question that won't be answered until Liriano returns from his arm injury.
And conditioning is fairly key to Liriano's performance. From what we gather from his medical reports, he has a chronically weak shoulder that requires a regular regimen to keep in shape. The shoulder stress is the link to his elbow problems. So hopefully he's following his doc's advice and working that wing.
Liriano is guaranteed to start once he's healthy; we'll have to wait and see how Clint Hurdle slots him. We'd expect him to pitch fourth if AJ works Opening Day to space the L-R sequence. For all the reasons we listed above, he's a risk. But there are reasons to like him, too.
At 29, Liriano's still in his prime. He's moving to a park that's lefty-friendly, especially regarding the long ball. Liriano only gave up one homer against a lefty last year, but 18 against righties; many of those balls die at the Notch in Pittsburgh. He should get a boost from moving to the NL; the senior circuit ERA is about .35 runs lower without the DH. And there's the karma: the stars align right for Liriano every three years, and if past history holds true, he's due in 2013.