Monday, April 23, 2012

Where will Liriano fit into the bullpen?

At the end of spring training, it seemed that Francisco Liriano was posed to have a strong start to the year. After pitching in the Dominican Winter League, Liriano had seemed to have it all together in spring training and he was ready to help the Twins forget about the headaches involved with the 2011 season. But here is a prime example of why you shouldn't trust spring training numbers because the results on the field have been disastrous. 

The statistics from his time on the mound this year are tough to look at. His ERA is 11.02 with an awful 2.327 WHIP and he has given up the most earned runs (20) and walks (13) in the entire American League. He hasn't been able to make it deep into games either with an average of just over four innings per start. Four starts into the 2012 season and the Twins are planning to "take a step back" with their left-handed hurler.

This phrase can take on a whole bunch of meanings but the Twins can ill afford to leave him in the starting rotation. He has only made it through the fifth inning in two of his outings and he has hardly put the Twins in position to win by giving up an average of five runs per start. In the coming days, he could be asked to move to the bullpen and this would start a chain of events for the Twins.

There are a couple of options for the Twins to fill the rotation spot that would be vacated by Liriano. With a couple of starters missing at the beginning of the year, Anthony Swarzak was asked to start the year in the rotation. He had one bad start earlier this week in New York but his first two appearances of the year were solid. The team has also seen some marginal success from Swarzak as a starter in the past. For his career when he starts, Swarzak has posted a 5.50 ERA and a 1.471 WHIP in 26 starts. These are not eye popping numbers but anything looks better than what Liriano has produced so far this year.

If the Twins want to leave Swarzak in his role as a relief option, the Twins could look to the minor leagues to fill Liriano's rotation spot. Scott Diamond has been one of the best pitchers at the start of the season at the Triple-A level. He has some outstanding numbers in his four starts with an ERA of 1.07 and a 1.026 WHIP in 26.1 innings on the mound. In fact out of his four starts this year, he has only given up earned runs in one of is outings. His hot start to the season could be hard for the front office to ignore with a possible rotation spot to fill.

The Twins seem determined to try and help Liriano to regain some of his confidence. One of the only ways for this to happen could be for him to shift to a different role out of the bullpen. This begs the question, where does Liriano fit into the bullpen? Would he be used as a long relief man for starters who aren't able to get far into a game? This might end up being a mop-up role but the Twins need him to spend some time on the mound in non-pressure situations.

At the end of last season, the Twins gave Liriano a couple of relief appearances as the team was trying to limit the pain on a rough season. In one of these outings, the team was down by significant margin so there wasn't a lot of pressure on him and he managed to pitch two innings without any damage. The other contest was tied at two when he entered and the Indians ended up scoring five earned runs off of Liriano in a third of an inning. During his entire big league career, Liriano has an ERA of 4.46 with a 1.427 WHIP in 34.1 innings as a relief pitcher. Both of these numbers are higher than his career average as a starter.

Near the start of spring training, I wrote about the possibility of Liriano not being with the Twins beyond the coming season. In this piece, I wrote that if Liriano were pitching well, the team would probably try to trade him before the deadline. That scenario doesn't seem to be coming true so my other point was that a bad season from Liriano could spell the end of his Twins career. For Lirano to have any trade value for the Twins, he would need to have a miraculous turnaround in the next couple of months. Barring a miracle, it looks like the Twins will shift Liriano to the bullpen and then part ways with the struggling pitcher at the end of the season.

A once promising career with the Twins will always leave fans wondering what could have been for the player who was suppose to be an ace for years to come.

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