Saturday, April 10, 2010

Is the "Franchise" on his way back?

Going into 2010 their were 3 games that got me the most excited. Obviously the first 2 were Opening Day and then the first regular season game played at Target Field. The third was the first start for Fransico Liriano. Last night Liriano made his 2010 debut and pitched quality 6 innings and 3 earned runs. Throwing 92 pitches Liriano only gave up 4 hits but walked 5 batters and had a wild pitch. Liriano's location issues may have been due to Drew Butera not calling enough first pitch fastballs. At some points the tandem seemed to turn away from it. What is more important that although Liriano struggled with his location, he still kept him team in position to win by delivering a quality start. Liriano had the best velocity we have seen from him since 2006 by running it up to 95 MPH.

Going into 2006 Liriano was one of the top 5 prospects in all of baseball according to Baseball America. He joined the Twins as part of a trade that included All Star catcher Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser sending away catcher AJ Pierzynski. In 2006 Liriano overwhelmed the the Major Leagues as a rookie not seen since Dwight Gooden in 1984. He baffled American League hitters with a 94 to 96 MPH fastball and a slider that was untouchable. In 121 innings he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 10.7 K/9. Liriano was given the nickname "Franchise" by then Twins ace and 2006 Cy Young award winner Johan Santana. An elbow injury at the end of the season cut his campaign for rookie of the year short which caused him to miss the Twins playoff series against Oakland, and more importantly the 2007 season.

Liriano would work hard to try to come back in 2008. Liriano was called up at the beginning of 2008 for a spot start but did not have his pitches all together. He would spend the majority of 2008 trying to gain back his control and more importantly the confidence to let loose. To try and relieve stress on his arm, Liriano learned a third pitch which was a circle change up. It was a plus pitch as he did quite well in AAA Rochester through out the year. In 123 total minor league innings Liriano had a 3.42 ERA and struck out 131 batters. He earned a promotion at the end of the year back to Minnesota. Liriano dominated in August posting a 1.23 ERA in 6 starts and 36 innings (record 4-0). In total Liriano had thrown over 170 innings by September 1st and tired arm had begun to set in. He was solid but not great in September going 2-1 with a 4.66 ERA in 29 innings. Optomism pointed to 2009 for Liriano has he was able to pitch a total of 199 innings in the minors and majors one year coming off Tommy John surgery.

After an shoulder stiffness plagued Scott Baker in spring training Liriano was picked to start Opening Day for the Twins. That was the high point. Liriano was not able to put any stretch together during the season to make his confidence grow. Physically he was just not able to locate his pitches. In addition to that he had lost some velocity in his fastball. A guy who was know to throw mid 90's in 2006 was barley cracking 90 throughout the season. He was also turning away from his slider and going to his change up in fear of another injury. At the end of the season Liriano was dropped from the rotation for Brian Duenseng. He pitched 136 innings in 2009 with a 5-13 record and a 5.80 ERA. Statistically he might have been the worst pitcher in the American League in 2009. His K/BB ratio was 122/65 and also gave up 21 home runs.

After trade rumors in the off season, reports came out that Liriano would participate in the Dominican Winter League World Series. Liriano began to be all over Twins news as he lead his team into the playoffs. In 7 playoff starts Liriano pitched 37 innings with a 0.49 ERA and a 47 to 5 K/BB ratio. Better yet Liriano had his stuff back. Game 9 of the DWL World Series was on ESPN 360. From what I watched he looked to be in good shape and was flaunting a 93-96 MPH fastball and was baffling hitters with the slider that was known as untouchable in 2006. In game 9 Liriano threw 5 innings gave up 1 hit and struck out 10 to win it for Leones del Escogido.

Hopes again were set high in spring for Liriano. As pitchers and catcher reported everything again was positive. He was set the with task that he would be competing with fellow left handers Brian Duenseng and Glen Perkins for the final spot in the rotation. He was throwing hard and had a new attitude that Rick Anderson and Ron Gardenhire loved. After Joe Nathan lost his season to Tommy John, rumors began to swirl that Liriano would be named the closer because he was showing such great stuff. In the end Liriano earned the last spot in the rotation. He pitched 20 innings and had a 2.70 ERA with 30Ks and only 5 walks. His stuff seemed to be back as he was showing a plus fastball with life (91-95) and the plus plus slider that gave him the name "Franchise".

Which brings us to last night. Liriano had good stuff. His fastball was 93 to 95 with a lot of late movement. His slider was really good and he threw some good change ups except the last one he threw to Alex Rios on a 1-2 count. Location is the next step in the process. He showed good command over spring which gives reason to believe that he can bounce back. His next start will be in Target Field against the Boston Red Sox, a very patient line up. Remember Liriano is still only 26 years old. He has the best stuff of any pitcher on the Twins staff. We have seen in the past when he is on that he can be an All Star. Of course their are questions about him because of how bad 2009 went. However, it is hard to over look how good he has been since last season ended. He wants to be a great starting pitcher. He can be a great starter. And if he does that takes the Twins from contender in the division to contender to the American League. If the Twins have a Fransisco Liriano that we saw in 2006 and late 2008, they have a left handed ace that can go up against guys like Jake Peavy, Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke inning for inning, pitch for pitch.

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