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Are the Twins giving up on Francisco Liriano?

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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 ESPN1500.com 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.

Yu Darvish will report to spring training on time, hopes to begin mound work in March

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Rangers ace Yu Darvish missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery last March 17. Most starting pitchers take 13-15 months to fully recover from that procedure, and the Rangers aren’t counting on Darvish until sometime this May.

His rehab so far has gone on without issue.

Darvish offered some very positive updates Tuesday to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram …

Darvish, 29, boasts a 3.27 ERA and 1.196 WHIP in 83 career major league starts. He can also claim a whopping 680 strikeouts in 545 1/3 career major league innings.

Texas has him under contract for $10 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017.

Masahiro Tanaka throws off mound for first time since October elbow surgery

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According to the Associated Press — via Chad Jennings of The Journal News — Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka threw off a bullpen mound Tuesday for the first time since undergoing a cleanup procedure on his right elbow last October.

The throwing session took place in New York, and Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild later told the media in Tampa that all of the reports he heard were good.

Tanaka might be behind some of the Yankees’ other pitchers when spring training officially begins, but he should be ready for the start of the 2016 regular season.

The 27-year-old native of Japan posted a 3.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 139/27 K/BB ratio across 154 innings last season for New York. He owns a 3.16 ERA (123 ERA+) in 290 1/3 innings since becoming a major leaguer in 2014.

Tanaka is still pitching with a partially-torn ligament in his right elbow that could eventually require Tommy John reconstructive surgery. His surgery last October was of the arthroscopic variety and simply removed bone spurs.

Bud Selig to teach a class at Arizona State law school

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Before Bud Selig ultimately retired, he had a couple of false start retirement announcements only to have the owners beg him to sign on for one more term. In one of those false starts he talked about how the University of Wisconsin had set up an office for him in the history department and that he’d be doing some research and teaching a class now and again. And he has, in fact, taught some one-off seminars at Wisconsin’s law school and the like.

Now something a little more permanent along those lines is in the works for The Greatest Commissioner in Baseball History. The Arizona Republic reports that Selig will join the Sports Law and Business program at Arizona State University’s law school where he will teach and advise as well as start up a speakers series in which he will bring in high-powered guests. No word on how many speakers will talk about big, important historical sports law cases like, say collusion in baseball, which was orchestrated by an ownership class in the mid-to-late 80s, of which Bud Selig was far and away the most influential member. That could get sort of awkward, I suppose.

Either way, it’s a good way to keep busy. I mean, that’s what it has to be as he’s not hurting for cash, what with the obscene $6 million severance package the owners gave him to, I dunno, not give interviews about bad stuff that happened back in the day like Fay Vincent does all the time. Stuff like collusion. Maybe he gets the $6 million for some other purpose. Who can say, really? It’s never made any sort of sense otherwise.

Anyway, good luck in Tempe, Bud. Maybe I’ll stop by your office at ASU when I’m there next month — I always stay in Tempe — and we can chew the fat or climb that butte with the big A on it or something. First round at Four Peaks afterward is on me.

White Sox sign first baseman Travis Ishikawa

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First baseman Travis Ishikawa has agreed to a minor-league contract with the White Sox that includes an invitation to spring training.

Ishikawa was previously reported to have a minor-league deal with the Mariners last month, but the signing was never finalized. Now he joins the White Sox, who have Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche ahead of him on the first base/designated hitter depth chart.

Ishikawa had some big moments for the Giants in the 2014 playoffs, but he’s a 32-year-old journeyman with a lifetime .255 batting average and .712 OPS in 488 games as a big leaguer.

It’s possible the White Sox could keep him around as a bench bat and backup first baseman/left fielder, but Ishikawa seems more likely to begin the season at Triple-A.