To say that Liriano had an excellent 2010 campaign is an understatement. His 2.66 FIP was 3rd in the majors last season, and he accumulated 6 wins of production. The Twins were conservative with his innings in 2010 in order to keep him healthy, and he responded. His 3.47 K/BB ratio was outstanding as he struck out more than a batter an inning, and his wipe-out slider was back (his slider was worth 19 runs last season—jeeeeebuuus). What made him even more special was a 1.96 GB/FB rate. Usually, big strikeout guys get a lot of fly balls—they have big fastballs that they like to blow past hitters up in the zone—but Liriano was able to keep the ball on the ground. If you keep the ball on the ground, it won’t go out of the park or get in many gaps, which will keep the opponents run scored down. Essentially what I’m telling you is that Liriano is the perfect pitcher … well, just approaching the ideal (he could stand to walk fewer hitters). If the Twins had allowed him to pitch more, he may have had the innings to sway a few Cy Young votes toward him (granted, it may have also made him more effective for the innings he did throw).
But what would the Yankees be getting this season? Can he keep it up? While Liriano was awesome last season, he wasn’t 2006 good either. Liriano’s 2006 FIP (2.55) was just slightly better than his 2010 FIP (2.66), but there was a substantial difference in his xFIP (2.35 to 2.06), due to the differences in HR rates. Most of that can be explained by a loss in stuff. Averaging almost 95 mph in 2006, he dropped to 94 last season. His slider dropped 2 mph, from 88 to 86. His change-up, however, went up 2 mph, which is bad if you weren’t paying attention. According to run values, his slider went from +23 to +19, his fastball went from +1 to -1, and his change-up went down to +2 from +9. But while he’s not 2006 good, 2010 good still puts him in elite company (his fWAR of 6 put him 8th last season even though he threw fewer innings). Can he repeat that in 2011?
My answer is that it depends on what you mean. Liriano posted a 3.62 ERA last season in the AL Central, but his FIP and xFIPs put him much lower than that. His 3.06 FIP looks more likely, but because he would be moving the AL East, he’ll likely be a bit worse than that. Still 200 innings of 3.30 FIP work will have him worth approximately 4.5 wins next season (essentially Tommy Hanson last season). Liriano’s arm strength has improved since coming back in 2008 (90.7 mph), and there’s no reason to think he’ll lose any arm speed. Plus, he won’t have an innings limit after throwing 190 last season. Seems like an excellent addition, right?
It depends on that left elbow. Out of the 92 pitchers that qualified for the ERA total, Liriano threw the third highest percentage of sliders at 33.8%, and for the injury mavens out there, what happens when one throws a lot of sliders? That’s right—arm issues. Now, he’s already had Tommy John, and while the reoccurrence of the injury isn’t likely, it’s also not out of the question. Considering the amount of sliders he throws, a reoccurrence for him seems more likely than most. What’s more disturbing is that he threw the 10th lowest percentage of fastballs among those 92 pitchers. That’s obviously a reason he’s been so good, but you wonder if he can do it for long. What makes this worse is that the team with the most information on that arm sees enough of a danger to dangle a 4-5 win pitcher when the team is in contention. It’s one thing to do it when you’re the Royals, but it’s another thing entirely when you’re in contention and still have a lot of money floating around from that new stadium. The situation screams “Buyer Beware”—and more so than normal, even for pitchers.
But “long” isn’t exactly the time frame the Yankees are dealing with. Liriano has two more years of control before he hits free-agency, and by that time the B’s should be ready and cheap. The Yankees can let Liriano go, or if they want, they’ll have the chance to throw their money at him. And with a rebuilt elbow, the arm “should” remain healthy over the next few years. Everything points toward Liriano remaining a healthy, productive pitcher for the next few seasons, but of course, no one can ever be sure. But he’s been getting stronger and more effective, threw almost 200 innings last season without problems, and has the potential to be another ace alongside or ahead of CC (OMG, you’re j/k, right?).
The question now becomes what he’s worth, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to avoid the question. At 9-10 wins over the next few seasons, Liriano will be worth about $50 million dollars, and after we subtract the $4.3 million salary for 2011 and possible $9 million for 2012, we are left with $37 million dollars of surplus value. According to Victor Wang, Jesus Montero ($36.5 million value as a Top 10 hitter) would be an equal swap for two years of Liriano’s services. If the Twins want pitching in return (probable), Manny Banuelos ($15.9 million as Top 11-25 pitcher) and Dellin Betances or Andrew Brackman ($12.1 million as a Top 51-75 pitcher—I’m probably being a little generous there, though not insane) would only be a start with about $7 million left. I realize that will probably start a riot around here, but pitchers are inherently risky because of injury. Yankees prospects are not immune. Another Grade B prospect or a couple C prospects would be necessary to complete the deal. Luckily, the perception of Liriano’s health and the Twins’ willingness to deal him might decrease some of the value needed to bring Liriano to the Big Apple.
So good news and bad news. Good news is that Liriano is an awesome pitcher and should remain so for the next few seasons. Bad news is that it will require quite a bit from the Yankees to acquire him. And I swear if I hear one person ask if Liriano can handle the spotlight, I’m going to e-scream.