Are the Twins giving up on Francisco Liriano?


Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune caused a huge stir in Minnesota last week by reporting that the Twins “don’t plan to sign Francisco Liriano long term” and added that he’s “surprised how open they are” to the possibility of trading Liriano, citing discussions with “team officials” after the two sides avoided arbitration with a one-year, $4.3 million deal.

According to Christensen “long-term talks went nowhere” and the Twins are worried about his ability to stay healthy.

Christensen is one of the best beat reporters in the country and rarely engages in speculation or rumors, so there’s definitely plenty of fire behind the Liriano-related smoke. Tom Pelissero of later confirmed Christensen’s report, talking to “baseball sources” who said the Twins are indeed willing to trade Liriano. After reading those two reports my first reaction was that the Twins are severely undervaluing what they have in Liriano.

He was impressive by any measure with 14 wins and a 3.62 ERA in 2010, but a deeper look at less mainstream stats shows a more dominant performance. He had the second-best strikeout rate in the league, ranked fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio, was one of seven starters to induce more than 53 percent ground balls, allowed just nine homers in 806 plate appearances, and posted the best Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) in the league at 3.06.

What kept Liriano from having a more easily recognized Cy Young-caliber campaign was a .331 batting average on balls in play that ranked as the second-highest mark in all of baseball and was 30 points higher than his career mark coming into the season. Whether you want to chalk that up to bad defensive support or bad luck he had an unsustainably high percentage of balls in play drop for hits and that made a great season appear more like merely a very good one.

And while the Twins have become more open to and interested in statistical analysis recently, they’re still far more likely to focus on his 14-10 record and 3.62 ERA than his AL-best 3.06 xFIP or various other new-school metrics. If they viewed Liriano mostly through the eyes of modern statistical analysis, my guess is they’d have no interest in trading him and would do everything possible to sign him long term before his old-school numbers catch up to his new-school stats.

None of which means simply writing Liriano a blank check is the correct move either. Evaluating him based on last season’s 14-10 record and 3.62 ERA is misguided, but concerns about his durability are valid. Liriano is now four years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery and his performance last year was that of someone fully recovered, but he did fade somewhat down the stretch following a heavy winter league workload and struggled for most of 2009.

However, since returning to the mound with a rebuilt elbow in 2008 he has 3.80 xFIP in 404.1 innings, which ranks 22nd among all MLB pitchers with at least 400 innings during that time. If the Twins want a No. 1 starter … well, Liriano is it. He’s been one of the top 20-25 starters in baseball since returning and performed as a top-10 starter in 2010. He’s also still just 27 years old and, while reports have his asking price putting the Twins off, he’s still relatively cheap.

Liriano will make $4.3 million this year and will be arbitration eligible for the third and final time next season, with a 2012 salary of at least $6 million and perhaps as much as $10 million likely if he turns in another strong performance. How much money and for how many years would be a fair offer to Liriano? Josh Johnson, who like Liriano has come back from Tommy John surgery to re-establish himself as an ace, recently signed a four-year, $39 million deal with the Marlins.

Johnson’s contract covered his final two years of arbitration eligibility and his first two years of free agency. Two winters ago, before he was a Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke inked a nearly identical four-year, $38 million deal covering two arbitration years and two free agent years. One of Liriano’s two remaining arbitration seasons is already locked in at $4.3 million, so using Greinke or Johnson as templates the Twins could offer about $34 million for three more years.

Now, if the Twins offered Liriano something along those lines and he turned them down and/or came back with a significantly higher counter-offer it makes sense that they’d begin to explore other options. However, if the Twins are just unwilling to pay the going rate for a young, elite starter’s final year of arbitration and first two seasons of free agency they’re either incredibly skeptical about Liriano staying healthy or drastically underrating his post-surgery performance.

Mark McGwire to become the Padres bench coach

Los Angeles Dodgers batting coach Mark McGwire roams the field during practice for the National League baseball championship series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, in St. Louis. The Dodgers are scheduled to play the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The other day Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres were in discussions with former Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire about their bench coach job. Today Jon Heyman reports that the deal is done and will soon be announced.

McGwire has been the hitting coach for Los Angeles for the past three seasons. When his contract was not renewed following the end of 2015 he was rumored to be up for the Diamondbacks’ hitting coach job. He likely view staying in Southern California to be a plus, as he makes his home in Irvine, which is around 90 miles from Petco Park. That’s a long commute, but Mac can afford the gas, I guess.

How to talk to your family about the designated hitter at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Dinner

While political topics are normally the subject of awkward conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table, hardcore baseball fans know that it can be just as awkward to talk about the game with relatives.

They don’t know baseball as well as you do — not by a long shot — but for some reason everyone thinks they have the God-given right not only to offer their baseball opinions but to demand acknowledgement that those opinions are correct. Baseball may be dying, you guys, but it’s vestigial status as our National Pastime makes everyone think they’re an expert by simple virtue of being an American. It’s maddening.

I can’t tell you how to keep your family away from sensitive topics, but here are brief answers to some frequently asked questions about the state of the game, and how you can defuse combustible conversations:

Will the National League adopt the designated hitter?

Despite the fact that the DH has been around four 43 seasons, your relatives — even those far younger than 43 — will loudly proclaim it to be a new-fangled abomination as they pass the sweet potatoes. While the best way to avoid conflict here is to say something like “I think the differences between the leagues are special and should be preserved” and try to quickly move on to something else, we don’t progress as a civilization by indulging foolishness in the name of peace. Tell your relatives that pitchers batting is dumb and that the DH should be universal. And then tell them to get their own sweet potatoes. You’re trying to eat here for cryin’ out loud.

Where will the big free agents go? Don’t the Yankees spend all of their big money and buy championships anyway?

My god, your uncle/cousin/sister’s boyfriend who probably shouldn’t be piping up about ANYTHING right now given that none of you really like him and it’s not going to last anyway is out of touch when it comes to such things. Tell them that the Yankees haven’t won jack since the first year of Obama’s first term and that even when they were winning the World Series all the time they did so on the back of homegrown talent, savvily-developed. Indeed, they STOPPED winning championships once they went huge on free agency and jacked up payroll and, despite the fact that they still owe a lot of old guys money, they are back to developing talent again and are way less likely to spend stupid money in free agency than they used to be. Careful here, though: people have strong feelings about the Yankees regardless of their ignorance and will likely fight back on this point. Maybe it’s safer just to discuss Obama. Here’s an idea to that end: how — as your drunk uncle claims — can Obama simultaneously be the least effective president ever AND a total dictator? Maybe Obama is one of those two things, but my drunk uncle has never given me a satisfactory answer to how he can be both.

Why doesn’t baseball have a salary cap? The players make too much money.

The idea of a salary cap in baseball is dead. Deader than vaudeville. It blew up the game in 1994-95, and the owners blinked rather than try it again in 2002.  Since then the money has been flowing, competitive balance has been better than most people will admit, and the owners seem to have very little desire to fight that fight again.  It’s not going to happen. Yet, for some reason — likely the Football Industrial Complex’s propaganda machine — every sports dilettante thinks that baseball not only needs a salary cap but that it’s actually something that could happen, even though it isn’t.

Here some ju-jitsu is in order. Rather than bog things down with facts which show that there is no need for a salary cap, turn the question around on them and ask them when the billionaires who own baseball teams will accept a cap on how much they should earn for their “labor.” When they spout off about how owners built the business themselves and are entitled to whatever they can get, ask them which of the current owners, who form a veritable Who’s-Who of Paper Movers, Genetic Lottery Winners and Men Who Were Born on Third Base Yet Think They Hit a Triple, built a dang thing. Peter Angelos, maybe. Just don’t tell them that he’s a rich plaintiff’s lawyer who had the union’s back during the 1994-95 strike.

What’s wrong with young players today? Why don’t they act professionally and respect the game? 

By this time your uncle may be so drunk on the Beaujolais Nouveau that he may actually slip and say “Latin players” instead of “young players,” and that’s assuming he’s polite enough to use words like “Latin” to refer to people from the Caribbean, Central and South America. If so, skip the lecture about how arguments regarding baseball decorum and “playing the game the right way” are really just proxies for cultural anxiety and creeping xenophobia and go directly to the inevitable conversation about immigration, refugees and Donald Trump. It’ll save you time and make everyone angrier way, way faster. And this is a wonderful thing.

Or, at least it is for me. I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year and the quicker people get to open warfare the quicker I can kick everyone out, bringing some peace and quiet back to my house. Plus: more pie for me.


(with both thanks and apologies to Brendan Nyhan of the New York Times)

Jerry Dipoto refutes the notion that Robinson Cano is unhappy

Robinson Cano

Yesterday John Harper of the Daily News reported that, according to a friend of Robinson Cano‘s, Cano is unhappy in Seattle and would like to go back to New York. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto responded to that report, saying that it’s totally false based on his conversations with Cano and his agent:

“[Cano’s agent] reached out to let me know that did not come from Robbie and that’s not at all reflective of how he felt,” said Dipoto, who replaced former GM Jack Zduriencik two months ago. “Shortly after the season ended, I sat down with Robinson in my office for two hours and we had a great talk and I think we left with a very clear understanding of who one another might be.

There are official lines and things one says to one’s friends. Then again, there are also friends who know things and “friends” who assume things thought by others and then talk to newspapers about it too. Where all of this falls on the truth/knowledge spectrum is something none of us can ever know.

What can be known for sure is that (a) Cano had a rough season from both a health and baseball perspective; (b) Cano is a professional who knows that there is zero upside to communicating displeasure with one’s current team to the press, either directly or through surrogates; and (c) when one is productive and one’s team is winning, one feels very differently about life than if one is not productive and not winning.

In short: there could very well be truth from both sides of this little happening.

Mariners looking to trade Mark Trumbo

Mark Trumbo

Seattle acquired Mark Trumbo from Arizona in June, but that was the Mariners’ old front office regime and new general manager Jerry Dipoto is remaking the roster. And he already traded away Trumbo once, back when he was the Angels’ general manager.

Jerry Crasnick of reports that “several rival executives said they expect” the Mariners to trade Trumbo, who is due to make around $9 million in 2016 via arbitration before becoming a free agent next offseason.

Trumbo has huge power, but he swings at everything and is a negative defensively as a corner outfielder/first baseman. He’s a career .250 hitter with a lowly .299 on-base percentage and modest .758 OPS thanks to averaging 160 strikeouts and 40 walks per 160 games.

It’s hard to imagine any team giving up a quality prospect for the right to pay $9 million for one season of Trumbo, but if Dipoto simply wants to be rid of the low-OBP slugger it might not take much to make a deal happen.