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Free agent outlook: Francisco Liriano

Ever since he came back from Tommy John surgery, his stats haven't matched his stuff. How much will that hurt him on the open market?

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Now that we're in the second half of October, it's time to take inventory of the roster's loose ends. We are laying out the cases for the White Sox' key likely free agents, which will then turn into storystreams (like this!) to keep track of all rumors and developments.

Today, it's Francisco Liriano.

Last contract: The Twins chose to go year-to-year with Liriano through arbitration. He made $5.5 million in 2012, after making $4.3 million in 2011 and $1.6 million in 2010.

How did he do: Liriano missed all of 2007 and most of 2008 due to Tommy John surgery. After taking his lumps in his first full rebound season (5-13, 5.80 ERA), he rediscovered his phenom form with an outstanding 2010. The Twins didn't buy into it, as they weren't any reports of serious extension talks.

They had their reasons. As it turns out, that was the only season with a sub-5.00 ERA out of his last four. He's been battling his command and confidence ever since, as we saw over the last two months of 2012.

2010 MIN 14-10 3.62 31 31 191.2 184 9 58 201 112 1.263 3.47
2011 MIN 9-10 5.09 26 24 134.1 125 14 75 112 80 1.489 1.49
2012 TOT 6-12 5.34 34 28 156.2 143 19 87 167 78 1.468 1.92
2012 MIN 3-10 5.31 22 17 100.0 89 12 55 109 76 1.440 1.98
2012 CHW 3-2 5.40 12 11 56.2 54 7 32 58 81 1.518 1.81
7 Yrs 53 4.40 168 141 840.0 781 83 356 846 96 1.354 2.38

Did he earn his 2012 salary: Here's a good case of FanGraphs and disagreeing over a pitcher's value for a season. FanGraphs credited him with 1.8 WAR last season, and if you know about WAR, you can guess why. Whenever a guy has a bad ERA with a good strikeout rate, FIP is going to be bullish. Sure enough, his FIP was one run lower than his ERA, but with Liriano, that's pretty much always the case (total career: 4.40 ERA; 3.75 FIP, 3.68 xFIP).

B-Ref, which bases its expected runs off real runs allowed, uses a far more jaundiced eye -- 0.2 WAR in 2012, and hovering around replacement level in the other years besides 2010. I'm leaning more towards that estimation. Given Liriano's reluctance to be knocked out of a game (he'd rather walk himself off the mound), the high strikeouts don't appear to be in good faith.

FanGraphs said Liriano was worth $8 million in 2012. Applying the same valuation of $4.4 million per win, Baseball-Reference said he earned $900,000. If you're a generous soul willing to split the difference, he still fell short by $1 million or so.

Free agent peers: In Jake Peavy's free agent outlook, I described a third tier of free agent starters, NL-only success stories like Ryan Dempster and Kyle Lohse. Liriano is at least a cut below those guys.

Liriano probably has the best stuff of "the rest," but he just can't figure out how to give a team innings. He threw 191 innings in his best year, but he averaged just 145 over his next two seasons. He's pitched poorly enough to lose his spot in the rotation a few times, and even when he does start, his outings are wracked with inefficiency.

That's going to limit his market, maybe even for bad teams. Take the Cubs (please) -- they might be interested in Liriano for his potential, but they already have lots of guys who can't guarantee five innings, so Liriano could add to the problem, except with actual money attached.

If there's any truth to that line of thinking, that puts him below guys like Joe Saunders and Jeremy Guthrie. Neither inspire a ton of confidence, but they've shown the ability to give their teams a so-so 180 innings (at least as long as that team isn't Colorado, apparently). There's some value in dignity, even if it's hard to quantify.

The comparables aren't all bad. In his favor are a couple of Liriano-lites that make him look more impressive -- Erik Bedard (often hurt, inefficient when healthy), and Jonathan Sanchez (whose command makes Liriano look like Tom Glavine). They prove that Liriano isn't a worst-case scenario, especially since they've pitched in the NL and Liriano hasn't.

After that, the field is full of injury and dead-cat-bounce gambles. Liriano has his flaws, but he turns 29 in nine days, so he's got about four or five more chances remaining as long as his left arm stays healthy. He's not a rotation-stabilizer, but he's the best upside play for a team whose season could hinge on the kind of two-month runs he occasionally puts together. And there will probably be organizations who think they can figure him out -- even if two strike-teaching, mechanics-simplifying pitching coaches couldn't do it.

Reasonable price*: One year, $5 million sounds right in the current environment, because it's hard to imagine a multi-year deal Liriano would accept. A negotiation in a vacuum would probably lower that to $3 million (and it'd probably be fatal, can you even imagine...). But if enough teams think he can make a difference and believe There's No Such Thing As A Bad One-Year Deal, he could get a little more of a club's budget surplus.

(*With the new TV deal, a number of teams may be inspired to open their wallets wide, and that could force us to adjust upward in a hurry.)