Feb 112011

On the heels of the Star-Tribune report that Minnesota Twins ace Francisco Liriano could be available, loads of analysis poured in from every angle. Two pieces really caught my attention, one from Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and another from our buddy Jason Rosenberg’s IATMS site from writer Mark Smith. Here’s the highlights, first up is Mark Smith:

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.

As we discussed yesterday, Montero’s not a match unless you get a 3rd team involved. The Twins will want pitching in return, and may see the Killer B’s as guys who could help them out of the bullpen this year. So according to Mark’s numbers, we’re looking at TWO of the Killer B’s plus a B-level positional prospect in an area of need for the Twins. Figure David Adams or Eduardo Nunez.

Next up is Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, who has a very different take:

That leaves Marcum as the closest comparison to Liriano. Like Liriano, Marcum has a history of injury problems but returned to pitch at a high level last year. In fact, their 2010 innings pitched and ERA totals are nearly identical, and this showed in their 2011 contracts – Marcum avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $3.95 million deal, while Liriano got $4.3 million. While Marcum doesn’t throw as hard, they both have knockout secondary pitches which they lean heavily upon.

In return for Marcum, the Blue Jays acquired Brett Lawrie, who Keith Law recently rated as the 37th best prospect in baseball. Position prospects in that range are generally worth about $20-$25 million in value, based on Victor Wang’s research. While the Twins could likely argue that Liriano should be valued at a higher rate than Marcum (teams pay a premium for velocity and strikeouts, both areas where Liriano has a significant edge), I think they’d have a tough time getting significantly more than what Toronto received when they moved a similarly valued pitcher.

In other words, Twins fans can probably stop dreaming of someone like Jesus Montero, as the Yankees would likely balk at that asking price. But if they made Liriano available, the Yankees would be the most obvious suitor, and would likely pay a higher price than any other team. Perhaps they’d be willing to part with Manny Banuelos, who Law ranks as one of the game’s best pitching prospects? That might be enough to satisfy the perceived differences between Liriano and Marcum, but would it be a large enough premium to justify improving one of the Twins main rivals for the American League pennant?

Cameron thinks the top tier prospects won’t be required to get a deal like this done, but two obvious quesions emerge. Will it be worth it for the Twins to deal him? And as Cameron asks, what sort of premium would the Yanks have to pay as a major obstacle to the Twins post season aspirations?

If the Twins weren’t serious contenders for their division and in something of a rebuilding phase, it would make more sense to deal with the Yanks. But strengthening a potential October rival is something that’s got to be hard to sell to your fan base. A deal would have to fill immediate needs with MLB ready talent, so they can argue making the move improves their chances for 2011 while dealing from a position of excess. They need lots of bullpen help, and could use a middle infielder as well. As I discussed yesterday, the Yanks match up well and have good prospects in both areas. The question could come down to how much will Bill Smith want the Yanks to overpay, and how far will Brian Cashman be willing to go. Don’t forget that Bill Smith doesn’t need to make this deal, while Cashman does. Smith is in the driver’s seat here.

I have to figure that Mark Smith’s price tag is the one for the Yankees, while Cameron’s will be the price tag for a NL team. Would you make that first deal? Montero straight up or two Killer B’s+? I know many fans have concerns about Liriano’s health, but having come back fully from TJ last year I feel pretty confident in him going forward. If I’m Brian Cashman, I look to do a Montero-centered deal with a 3rd team involved. Catching is an area of great depth for the Yanks, and high ceiling pitching prospects are the types the Yanks need to hang on to. I doubt anything happens this spring, but if the Yanks feel Russel Martin is back to the player he was a few years ago, dealing Montero will be much easier to swallow.

What do you think? How far would you go for Liriano?

Feb 102011

In a report by Joe Christensen of the Minnesota Star Tribune, it appears the Twins are willing to move the 27 year old lefty, though no timetable has been set. Here’s the story:

With six pitchers vying for five spots in the Twins starting rotation, one possible solution is trading Francisco Liriano. Speaking to team officials recently, I’ve been surprised how open they are to this possibility, but the logic makes sense.

Liriano, 27, can become a free agent after the 2012 season. Coming off a resurgent year, he might never have a higher trade value.

One thing is clear: The Twins don’t plan to sign him long term. Last weekend, they avoided arbitration with a one-year, $4.3 million deal. From what I’ve heard, their long-term talks went nowhere, with Liriano’s camp hinting it wanted a three-year, $39 million contract.

First let’s examine Liriano as a pitcher, then we’ll look at whether the two sides are a match. He has only made 30 starts once in his 5 full seasons in the bigs, and that was last year. Much of that was due to having Tommy John surgery in 2007, and the elbow issues that led to the procedure. He also had a very long road back from the procedure, both in terms of health and effectiveness. He struggled in 2008 and 2009 with both his stuff and control, which isn’t uncommon among TJ patients, as Yankee fans have seen with prospect Andrew Brackman. He also had some arm injuries in the minors. But last year Liriano was all the way back, striking out more than a batter per inning (9.44) with a good walk rate (2.74). When he’s on, he’s one of the best lefties in the game. He features a devastating slider that he fell in love with as a young pitcher, which most likely led to his elbow issues. The 95 MPH fastball we saw as a rookie was all the way back to pre-injury levels last year (94.2 MPH) after being down in 2008 (90.0 MPH) and 2009 (91.5 MPH). He also features a good change up, but the other worldly slider is clearly his best pitch and he relies upon it heavily (threw it 34% last year). He was #2 in all of baseball last year in xFIP, behind only Roy Halladay. When healthy, there’s nothing not to like. He destroys lefties when he’s on, and putting him in Yankee Stadium for his prime years could make him even better.

Before Yankee fans start salivating over trade proposals, remember that Bill Smith is the GM of the Twins. The same GM who demanded a more expensive package from the Yankees for Johan Santana than he wound up getting from the Mets. The Santana deal was a fiasco for the Twins, they wound up trading their best pitcher for virtually nothing. They would have been better off holding on to him and taking the draft picks from a baseball standpoint. Deolis Guerra flamed out in the upper levels of the minors, Carlos Gomez proved he can’t hit and was traded to the Brewers, Philip Humber was mediocre in the upper levels of the minors and horrible in the majors and was released after the 2009 season, and Kevin Mulvey was traded to the D-Backs as a PTBNL in the Rauch deal. All totaled, they got very little value back for one of the best pitchers in baseball. Will Bill Smith be more open to dealing with the Yanks after the Santana experience? Perhaps. But he’s already shown a preference for trading his top pitchers out of the league, and the two situations are also very different in terms of affordability. The Yankees, Mets and Red Sox were the only realistic bidders for Santana, who was making 13 mil with the Twins and looking for a huge extension. Liriano will earn just 4.3 mil this year, has two years of team control left and was only seeking a 3 year, 39 mil extension from the Twins. That will expand the universe of teams who will be bidding for his services dramatically. If there are comparable offers from the Yanks and a NL team, history shows Smith will take the NL package. The Yanks will need to overbid to land Liriano.

That leads us to the next item, do the Yanks and Twins match up? The Yanks are loaded with catchers, but the Twins have Joe Mauer. Many scouts feel Montero’s best position would be 1B, but the Twins have Morneau there. The Yanks are also loaded with pitching, but the impetus for trading Liriano is the fact that the Twins are already 6 deep in starters, with top prospect Kyle Gibson on the way. Smith is known to love speedy outfielders, so Brett Gardner would be an obvious match to platoon with or replace the overpaid and under performing Michael Cuddyer and/or Jason Kubel. The Twins could certainly use some bullpen arms after losing Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier and Ron Mahay to free agency. The Yanks have a stacked bullpen at the MLB level, and some scouts feel one or all of the Killer Bs will end up as relievers. They may want a 2B  as an insurance policy for newly signed Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, having lost Orlando Hudson to free agency. The Yanks have a few interesting candidates (Adams, Nunez) that could possibly fit there. But a Yankee-Twins deal would seem to require peeling players off the MLB roster, which would obviously create holes for the Yanks to fill. Would a 3 team deal do the trick? Maybe. One thing is for sure, early returns show that Twins fans don’t like the idea of trading Liriano, and things like that can impact how a team operates. That will make it harder to do a deal with the universally hated Yankees.

A number of Yankees Hot Stove stories out there this morning:

1) The Yankees have apparently upped their offer to 7 years, although Joel Sherman reports that the deal is actually more complicated than that:

The Yankees’ offers work on a scale in which the shorter the term, the higher the annual average value. It is believed the bids work something like this: five years for $125 million; six years for $144 million; seven years for $161 million; or $25 million a year, $24 million a year and $23 million a year, respectively.

This is an interesting plan, although I cannot see a pitcher of Lee’s age doing anything but taking the largest offer. I have said all along that I thought a 7 year deal was way too long, and I stand by that position. That said, it may be time to reluctantly conclude that this is an inflated market, and that these sort of deals may be where baseball is headed. As EJ noted yesterday, MLB may be due for some contract inflation due to soaring revenues.

2) Sherman with some encouraging news on Derek Jeter:

Jeter is renowned around the Yankees for having a set routine and hating to deviate from it. Yet in response to his poorest campaign, Jeter is going to break with his habitual offseason plan and do one-on-one sessions with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, The Post has learned. Jeter may travel to Arizona, but Long more probably will go to Tampa, likely in January.

The two had begun to implement some changes late in the year that showed some positive results. Essentially, as a way to shorten a too-long swing, Long wants to continue to get Jeter to better control the direction and the length of his stride.

Derek worked on his conditioning and flexibility prior to the 2009 season, and he later credited that work for helping him to one of the best seasons of his career. It is good to see that Derek is willing to change his routine to hone his craft, particularly now that he is signed to another expensive contract. A bounce-back season from Jeter would go a long way towards helping the club remain the best offense in the AL East.

3) The Yankees apparently called the Twins about Francisco Liriano, but were told that he is not available. I would imagine that the call was part of Brian Cashman’s Plan B, and I am curious to find out what his other targets might be should the Yankees whiff on Cliff Lee.

4) According to multiple reports, the Yankees and Red Sox are both working hard to sign Russell Martin. With the Yankees declaring Jorge Posada to be the DH and considering the uncertainty that surrounds Jesus Montero, a Martin signing would help remove a lot of the risk from the Yankees catching situation. The Red Sox may need Martin even more, so it should be interesting to follow this as it develops.

5) Old friend Melky Cabrera signed with the Royals, who also signed Jeff Francoeur. Neither player is good at all, and I often wonder whether it might be better for teams like KC to play minor league free agents and perceived AAAA-types in the hopes of discovering a decent asset.

Oct 072010

Of all the moves that a manager makes throughout a game, the one that I think can be attributed most to ‘feel’ rather than pure statistical data is the decision on when to pull the starter. Often, the pitcher’s stuff will give clues that he is losing effectiveness, and it is up to the manager to gauge whether he can count on the pitcher to get a few more outs without losing effectiveness. It is a difficult decision that is ripe for criticism when it backfires, particularly because managers will often ignore the signals from the pitcher due to the favorable nature of a matchup or the reputation of the pitcher. During last night’s playoff game between the Yankees and Twins, both managers were faced with this difficult decision in the 6th inning.

In the top of the inning, Francisco Liriano struggled for the first time in the game, allowing 2 runs to score and putting runners at 1st and 2nd with 2 outs. The batter was Curtis Granderson, a hitter who traditionally struggles against lefties and has particularly bad numbers against Liriano. However, Liriano looked fairly gassed, and has been a 6 inning and 100 pitch pitcher all season. Additionally, lefty Jose Mijares was ready in the bullpen and could have been used to maintain the platoon advantage against Granderson. Ron Gardenhire decided to go with the previously favorable Liriano v. Granderson matchup, and Liriano’s tiredness cost Minnesota the lead. Granderson tripled to right-center to score two runs, knocking Liriano from the game for the lefty Mijares, who retired Brett Gardner.

In the bottom of the inning, Joe Girardi was faced with a similar choice. CC Sabathia had struggled with his command all game, but had been able to limit the damage to 3 runs over 5 innings. Now armed with a one run lead, he started out the inning by retiring Joe Mauer and then Delmon Young, with Young flying out to the wall in left. CC’s command then abandoned him, and he walked Jim Thome, allowed a double to Michael Cuddyer, and then walked lefty Jason Kubel. With rookie righty Danny Valencia coming to the plate and Dave Robertson ready in the pen, Joe Girardi had a tough decision to make. CC had clearly lost the plate, but Valencia had looked lost in two previous at-bats against CC, both strikeouts. Furthermore, CC did not look particularly tired, nor had he lost any movement or velocity. He simply was exhibiting the lack of command that plagued him all game. Girardi decided to stay with his ace, and just as that choice had burned Gardenhire, it cost Joe’s team the lead. Valencia walked on 4 pitches to force in a run, and JJ Hardy came to the plate to face Sabathia. Again Joe chose to leave CC in, and this move worked out as Hardy struck out on a beautiful 2-2 changeup.

As I said in my introduction, these sort of decisions are quite difficult. Managers tend to get lost in the head-to-head matchups of Liriano v. Granderson and Sabathia v. Valencia and ignore the fact that their pitcher has lost effectiveness and is not the same guy who has retired the batter in the past. On the other hand, I can understand why managers might have more faith in their ace pitcher than a reliever. The ace is a known quantity, as you have some feel for how he is pitching that night. Conversely, you never know if a reliever is going to have an off night until he serves up a fat one and costs you the game. Personally, I believe in a quick hook in the postseason and would have removed both pitchers from the game prior to the discussed at-bats. However, I do not think either manager made a particularly egregious decision is staying with their aces, and would not complain much if Girardi made the same “mistake” again later this postseason.

What would you have done?

May 262010

cano pwning

After beginning the 2006 season in the bullpen, Francisco Liriano was converted back to a starter and promptly set the American League on fire like Sherman to the sea.  Over 121 innings Liriano posted a 2.16 ERA, an ERA+ of 208, a FIP of 2.55 and an xFIP of 2.35.  He struck out 144 batters, which gave him a K/9 of 10.7, and walked only 32, giving him a BB/9 of 2.4 and a K/BB ratio of 4.50.  Imagine how good the Twins would have been if he had been in the eighth inning!!1!.  I kid.  Liriano was worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement in 2006, but had elbow pain in August and September and eventually went under the knife for Tommy John surgery in November.  Liriano missed the entire 2007 season and was inconsistent in both 2008 and 2009.  At times he showed flashes of dominance, but he was often very hittable and struggled with command.

2010 has been a different story.  While he hasn’t notched a 10.7 K/9, his numbers have been very impressive.  In eight starts and 52.2 innings, Liriano has an ERA of 3.25, having struck out 52 batters and walked 17.  Here is a log of his first eight outings, courtesy of Baseball Reference.

fl gamelog

As you can see, Liriano strung together several excellent outings in April before hitting a bit of a rough patch in May.  At .332, Liriano’s BABIP currently a bit higher than his career average of .313.  Like always, it pays to look at the underlying factors behind this before predicting regression.  His line drive rate is 20.5%, a point higher than his career average and two points higher than his 2009 results, but Liriano is also inducing 7% more groundballs than he did in 2009, leaving his fly ball percentage 10% points down at 31.5%.  One fluky aspect to Liriano’s 2010 campaign is his HR/FB ratio, which is currently an unsustainably low 4.3%.  Historically he has averaged 11.1%.  This explains why his FIP stands at 2.67 and his xFIP (which normalizes HR rate among other things), is 3.36.

In 2010, Liriano is stranding 75% of batters that get on base.  In his 2006 banner year, that number was an absurdly high 83.2%, and 2008 and 2009 that number dropped to 68% and 66%.  It’s difficult to know what to expect from him going forward, given that he’s only thrown 410 major league innings in his entire career, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect his strand rate to be somewhere in the neighborhood of his 08-09 numbers, or slightly down from where it is now.  In short, Liriano should probably be giving up a few more home runs, but the help he gets from a correction in BABIP may negate the effect on his ERA.  At least, that’s what FIP and xFIP tell us.

Liriano is a three pitch pitcher who features a fastball, a slider and a changeup.  In 2010, his fastball has averaged 93.9 mph and in his last outing against Boston he dialed it up to 96 mph.  This is a marked difference from 2008 and 2009 when he averaged 90.0 mph and 91.5 mph, respectively, and may suggest that Liriano is just now fully recovered from  Tommy John surgery.  Liriano’s best pitch, from the perspective of Twins fans and Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Values chart, is his slider.   So far in 2010 he has thrown this pitch 31.0%,which is the fifth most of any pitcher in the major leagues this year, and would have represented the third highest percentage of all pitchers in 2009, behind Ryan Dempster and Brett Anderson.  In 2006, he threw his slider more than anyone else in the majors (min IP 100). There are some that argue that the slider is dangerous and hard on the arm, because of the supination of the wrist during release.  The Yankees often have their pitching prospects scrap their sliders and switch to curveballs, but it’s unclear as to whether they are doing so specifically because of the danger involved when throwing a slider or because Nardi Contreras simply loves curveballs.  Regardless, Liriano throws his slider an awful lot, and he is throwing it dangerously close to 2006 levels so far this year.

In Liriano, the Twins currently have a hard-throwing, groundball-generating strikeout artist.  It’s too early to say that Liriano is “back”, and it’s doubtful that he’ll ever get back to his absurd level of domination in 2006. He is, however, getting batters to chase pitches out of the zone at a rate higher than he did in 2006 and is clearly the best pitcher on the Twins right now.  The Yankees have their work cut out for them.  Given that he’s especially tough on lefties, now might be a good time to move Gardner down in the lineup and move Swisher into the two-hole.  Those bats have to start hitting soon.  It might as well be tonight.

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