July 30, 2012

Twins trade Liriano to White Sox for Escobar and Hernandez

Saturday night, with about 65 hours to go until the trade deadline, the Twins pulled the trigger on an increasingly inevitable Francisco Liriano deal by sending him to the White Sox for left-hander Pedro Hernandez and infielder Eduardo Escobar. Both players have spent time in the majors for the White Sox this year and figure to be September call-ups if the Twins don't promote them before then, but unfortunately neither player is considered much of a prospect.

Escobar draws strong reviews for his defense at shortstop and also has experience at second base, but he's never hit at any level and has spent most of this season glued to the White Sox's bench while going 16-for-82 (.195) with 22 strikeouts. Chicago letting him collect dust as a big-league utility man at age 23 doesn't make much sense, but it does suggest they weren't particularly concerned about his development and perhaps viewed him as a marginal player.

And rightfully so, as Escobar hit .266/.303/.354 with four homers and a 104-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 137 games at Triple-A last season and is a career .270/.315/.351 hitter in the minors. He's still young enough to improve at the plate and if Escobar's defensive reputation is accurate he won't have to hit much to be valuable, but so far the switch-hitter has shown almost zero power along with terrible plate discipline and no ability to control the strike zone.

Hernandez was traded from the Padres to the White Sox as the lesser half of a two-prospect haul for outfielder Carlos Quentin on December 31. He debuted for the White Sox two weeks ago and got knocked around by the Red Sox, allowing three homers and eight runs in four innings before an immediate trip back to the minors. Based on both his track record and raw stuff Hernandez is a typical Twins pitcher with modest velocity, good control, and few whiffs.

His fastball tops out in the low-90s along with a slider and changeup, he's induced more fly balls than ground balls, and in 145 innings between Double-A and Triple-A he's allowed more than a hit per inning while averaging 6.5 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine frames. Those numbers combined with fly-ball tendencies and underwhelming velocity make it tough to project the 23-year-old lefty as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter or long reliever.

Terry Ryan revealed after the trade that the Twins and Liriano never talked long-term deal, which isn't surprising from either side's point of view. Liriano is two months from being able to hit the open market and take bids from all 30 teams, so unless the Twins blew him away with a huge offer it made little financial sense to pass up free agency. And after living with his ups and downs for seven years the Twins can't be blamed for avoiding a long-term commitment.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement making a "qualifying offer" to Liriano was also an option and would have led to either re-signing him to a one-year deal for around $12 million or receiving draft pick compensation when he signed elsewhere. I'd have preferred a draft pick to what they ended up getting and keeping him for 2013 without the long-term commitment wouldn't have been such a bad thing either, but clearly the Twins felt otherwise.

Getting a pair of C-level prospects is certainly preferable to letting Liriano walk for nothing, but I'm just having a difficult time believing that's the best the Twins could have done. To believe that you'd have to assume the numerous local and national reports about no fewer than a half-dozen teams being interested in Liriano were mostly false or at least that the half-dozen interested teams were only willing to offer the Twins marginal prospects in return.

Maybe that's true. After all, trading Liriano to a division rival--the Twins and White Sox last made a deal in 1986--suggests Ryan felt it was definitely the best offer and for as well as he's pitched since rejoining the rotation in May he's still a two-month rental with an inconsistent track record who turned in a clunker in front of a collection of scouts last time out. Of course, plenty of other two-month rentals are being traded for vastly superior prospects this month.

My expectations for a Liriano trade were never particularly high, or so I thought. I certainly did not expect the Twins to land anything close to an elite prospect and thought even a prospect in the B-plus range was probably wishful thinking, but to wind up with two likely role players who didn't crack the top 10 in arguably MLB's worst farm system is disappointing. If this is truly the best the Twins could do a lot of people wasted a lot of energy reporting and speculating.

Nine years ago in one of the best trades in team history the Twins acquired Liriano from the Giants along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski. At the time Liriano was 19 and universally viewed as a high-upside arm, but coming off an injury wrecked Single-A season he rated behind Bonser in most prospect rankings. Bonser ultimately proved to be a bust, but Nathan developed into an elite reliever and Liriano ... well, that's a bit more complicated.

Following the trade Liriano was healthy and dominant in the minors, establishing himself as one of baseball's top 10 prospects. As a rookie in 2006 he worked out of the Twins' bullpen for six weeks and then joined the rotation in mid-May, doing the impossible by upstaging Johan Santana with an 11-2 record, 1.95 ERA, .162 opponents' batting average, and 105-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings spread over his first 14 starts.

He had a mid-90s fastball and a devastatingly unhittable slider that racked up a combination of strikeouts and ground balls rarely seen. He was simply as good as a pitcher can possibly be. And then he got hurt. After an unsuccessful comeback attempt Tommy John surgery followed, knocking Liriano out for all of 2007 and leaving him at Triple-A to begin 2008. He returned to the Twins in mid-2008 as a much lesser but still effective version, but then struggled in 2009.

Liriano seemingly put it all back together in 2010, posting a 3.62 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 192 innings to show that he was still very capable of dominating despite missing a few miles per hour off his pre-surgery stuff. And then he unraveled last season, throwing away all the progress he'd made, and began this year with a 9.45 ERA in six starts before the Twins demoted him to the bullpen in May.

Three weeks and a handful of unspectacular relief outings later Liriano rejoined the rotation and put together an 11-start stretch in which he posted a 3.68 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings. His raw stuff was still closer to the excellent, post-surgery 2010 version than the otherworldly, pre-surgery 2006 version, but Liriano's strikeout rate and swing-and-miss totals were as dominant as ever.

He picked a bad time for his one clunker during that 11-start span, failing to make it out of the third inning while allowing seven runs in Chicago last Monday night, although doing that damage against Liriano didn't stop the White Sox from trading for him. Coming into the game Liriano had gone at least five innings in every start since April 27, but he allowed three homers in 2.2 innings after allowing a total of three homers in his previous 71 innings.

It's unlikely that one ugly start significantly altered Liriano's trade value and by trading him for a pair of middling prospects just 12 hours before his final scheduled pre-deadline start the Twins certainly showed that they didn't think one impressive outing would give him a big last-minute boost. So now in an odd twist of fate (or at least scheduling) Liriano's next start will come Tuesday at Target Field, against the Twins. And his new batterymate? A.J. Pierzynski.

Liriano's time in Minnesota was both amazing and maddening, but it's hard not to think back to that unhittable rookie and dream about what could have been if only his elbow had held up under the pressure of a high-stress delivery and overpowering raw stuff. He left his mid-90s fastball on the operating table and never learned to consistently throw strikes with lesser velocity, which is how limitless potential turns into a 4.33 ERA and two marginal prospects.

For a whole lot more about the Liriano trade and the Twins' other potential deadline deals, listen to this week's episode of Gleeman and The Geek:

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  1. FWIW, Liriano’s Pitch F/X numbers in his last start:

    NOTHING wrong with the stuff. Still looking much improved velocity and movement wise from 2011 and early 2012.

    His sinker was incredibly sink-y, actually (3.68 inches of true rise is awesome). His slider averaged 86 and topped out at 89.

    People want to talk about his head and his command exclusively – and I’m guessing his location in the White Sox start wasn’t the greatest (didn’t watch) – but his STUFF took a massive backward step in 2011 and early 2012. It took an even bigger leap forward in June and July. His 2-seamer may have been TOO electric for him against the sox, leading him to throw straight fastballs as get me over pitches, with poor results. But you can’t teach stuff, and ***I fail to even COMPREHEND how they couldn’t run him out there one more time and hope to thereby make the 7.23.2012 start look like a blip in the radar.*** What’s the point of getting “practically nothing” vs. nothing, period, when SEXY SOMETHING is the upside of the “nothing, period” path?

    Even you, Gleeman, have been talking about the high walk rate during June/July, but as the SIERA modelers have shown you can overcome a high-ish walk rate over the longterm by having a great K rate, as he has.

    Don Cooper is going to prove how awful the Twins org. is at this point in time. Ugh.

    Comment by toby — July 30, 2012 @ 1:17 am

  2. I was at the A’s game in 2006 when Liriano tried to come back, was sparkling for 2 innings, and then walked off after re-injuring the arm. I remember thinking that it might be the last time we ever saw that amazing player. He tantalized in 2010, but it turns out he’ll just be a maddening flash in Twins history. As far as baseball goes, it’s as close to tragic as you can get.

    Comment by David — July 30, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  3. He was gone anyway, didn’t expect top prospects for him. Maybe they turn into Punto, Duensing 2.0 that’d be better than a poke in the eye.

    Comment by Mike — July 30, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  4. Terry Ryan is an old school GM in a new school world. I think the Twins needs to hire a new GM from outside the organization, maybe the Rays asst GM?

    Comment by Jacob — July 30, 2012 @ 10:12 am

  5. @Toby: Your argument assumes that Liriano has a good start. But what if he has a bad one? Also, most teams, including the White Sox, understand that one bad start is just that: one bad start. The problem wasn’t the bad start. It was the fact that he’s had so MANY of those bad starts. And one good start wasn’t going to repair that reputation. It certainly wasn’t going to suddenly propel his value. Look, I’m disappointed at the return myself — it’s little more than a bag of balls and an expired ticket to the Illinois State Fair. But it IS better than nothing. And at this point, we just have to accept it. If you wanted more in a trade of Liriano, you should argue that the Twins should have traded in spring training 2011 when his value was highest.

    Comment by mazeville — July 30, 2012 @ 11:23 am

  6. This just in: Twins wait to trade players until value is rock bottom (see Delbert Young, Kevin Slowey, Jim Thome, insert other name here) This patten keeps on a rolling and that is why Willingham is off the table. Not a bad thing in light of the Twins scouting system. GM’s from around the league have to be trying to pull off some amazing trades with the Twins right now, get while the getting is good!

    Comment by spoof bonser — July 30, 2012 @ 11:29 am

  7. I’ve been reading this blog since 2005 and this is my first post….

    I, for one, am a bit disappointed, but maybe for different reasons. I wasn’t expecting much of a return for Liraino, but I’m pretty sure I’m in small company when I say Liriano is (was) my favorite Twin. I’ll never forget his 2006 season when he was the best pitcher on a team that produced the Cy Young award winner. When he took the mound that year you knew the Twins were going to win, period. I know he’s never been the same but I love watching him pitch, you never know what you get, sometimes you get 3 innings of disaster, sometimes you get a no-hitter. I also know that his inconsistency is difficult to manage but it was fun, I loved watching his slider when he was on. I can’t help but wonder what could have been if the pitching staff hadn’t tried to get him to ‘pitch to contact’ if those rumors are in fact true. I understand it makes managerial sense to get rid of Liriano but I can’t help being disappointed that he’s gone.

    I wish he hadn’t gone to my least favorite team. And I might be alone in saying this but I’ll be a lifetime Liriano fan. I wish him the best, and if I could, I’d thank him for the show he put on in 2006 that I’ll never forget.

    Comment by Kavan — July 30, 2012 @ 11:40 am

  8. I too am a fan of Liriano, and will miss the times he just dominates. It’s fun to watch great pitching.

    As for the trade, it’s over now. I just hope that the team realizes that to get value, you need to give up value. And, I think they need to trade for some legit pitching, so I hope they deal from strength and deal some OFing for some SPing.

    Comment by mike wants wins — July 30, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  9. I read the news of Francisco Liriano’s trade early Sunday, and I was struck with a good amount of sadness. I was reminded that the Twins were truly a special team during the 2002-2010 seasons. Frankie’s departure is yet another sign of change in the Twins’ roster.

    Ortiz, Pierzynski, Koskie, Hunter, Radke, Santana, Redmond, Jones, Thome, Crain, Kubel, Cuddyer, and Nathan are just a few former players who made the Twins exciting and gave the team its character over the last decade. And now Liriano.

    The Twins are no longer a small-market, low-revenue team. So, I found it odd that an extension for Liriano was not even offered.

    I can’t figure out the direction Terry Ryan wants to take with this current team. But, to be honest, many of us fans are losing interest. We were spoiled with very good teams during 2002-2010. The current Twins just don’t inspire much of anything.

    Comment by jfs — July 30, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  10. David: I was at that game too.

    Mazeville: I absolutely do NOT assume that. I am saying: if he were bad again, SO WHAT? They didn’t get anything of value.

    But if he were good, two things happen. One: he was good, so his value gets a bump. You can argue it would be small. I disagree, but fine. However: Two: they actually come up against the deadline, and teams are forced to make real “final offers”.

    If these two things added up to “no better offer” or even “no offer, period,” SO. WHAT?

    They didn’t get a worthwhile player for him. They got a pitcher with anemic milb strikeout rates and sky-high flyball rates. IOW, they got a guy who is overwhelmingly likely to be a terrible MLB pitcher. Just as he was in his sole run-out as a White Sox starter. Oh yes: and they got a fungible good glove, no-hit replacement player.

    Comment by toby — July 30, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

  11. @Toby: You’re kidding yourself if you think Liriano’s trade value would get a “bump” with one start. It’s certainly not going to bring in a sudden haul. The best that could happen is that some teams would get desperate. The problem with that is that there are a number of other pitchers on the market.

    And if there was a potential bump, there would be an equal decline in value with a bad start. He could also get injured. They took the best offer they had. It sucks, especially because he’s so talented.

    In the end, we’re talking about, at best, a bump up from marginal prospects to slightly less marginal prospects. None of the players were talking about in even the best case scenario is anywhere close to a difference maker.

    They got something. They got a pitcher who will likely be a lefty reliever. And they got a utility player with an extremely good glove. Not great. I’m not exactly jumping for joy, either. But I think in this case the Twins should get the benefit of the doubt. They did what they had to do.

    Incidentally, I’m 100 percent sure that, if you walked into Twins offices today and talked privately with the front office, they’d say that they’re disappointed with the return, too.

    Liriano was a risky asset. If I sold you a television, and told you that it only works from time to time, you’d pay me less for it and then hope you can figure out how to fix the thing.

    Comment by mazeville — July 30, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

  12. The only part of me that is disspointed about Liriano trade is the reaction from everyone. If you remove the sterling season of 2006, which Frankie clearly is no longer that pitcher, you have a pitcher with a career ERA of 4.90 and a record that is 9 games under .500. You basically have Edwin Jackson or worse.
    If you take a step back look at what Frankie really is at this point in career, it isn’t that bad of a trade.

    If Don can turn him into functional pitcher again, then we need to take a long hard look at replacing our pitching coach–which might not be a bad idea anyway.

    Comment by MickChuck — August 2, 2012 @ 11:00 am

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