Monday, May 05, 2008

The Liriano Decision

"[Francisco] Liriano got a chance to see that he wasn't ready to pitch in the Majors quite yet, something that it seemed neither he, nor his agent, was so quick to believe out of Spring Training."

- Kelly Thesier in her mailbag on the Minnesota Twins web site.

Bill Smith: Maybe in [Liriano's] own eyes, he now knows that he's not ready to pitch up here.
Chad Hartman: Did he need to see that? Was he convinced that he could pitch up here right now? And that he would have harbored some negative feelings toward people up here if he was still pitching in Fort Meyers or in Rochester without getting the chance to show everybody....
Bill Smith: I think so. I think there was a chance that that was going to be an issue. Not so much that he's going to harbor feelings, but I think it had a chance for him to really get down that he wasn't being given a chance.
- yesterday in an interview on KFAN
When you study this stuff, you spend more than a little time doing nothing more than reading tea leaves. And I gotta tell you, it's awfull gratifying when you find out you're suspicions were right.
In spring training, the Twins repeatedly talked about Liriano's lack of control. And after his second minor league start, presumably done to have him build arm strenght, it was repeatedly noted that his control was still a major problem. He was called up anyway. This despite walking four batters in four innings in his first start was called up when Kevin Slowey pulled up lame. Hell, his own AAA manager speculated that he wasn't ready yet.
Now, it's fair to say this isn't a protypical move by the Twins. They're absolutely freaks about control. To the point where it's been annoying. In face, they haven't been afraid to use it over an over as a talking point for why a pitcher isn't in the major leagues. So what was different here?
Well, one thought was that the Twins viewed this year as a developmental year. After all, Carlos Gomez clearly doesn't meet the Twins traditional definition of "major-league-ready", but he broke camp with the team. So maybe Liriano fits that mold, too?
Except that in Gomez's case, they felt like he needed to be exposed to major-league pitching, and that is something that can't happen in AAA. Working on control doesn't need to happen in the majors. Learning to put the ball in a certain quadrant of the strike zone can happen at any league. And in Rochester, the Twins weren't burning Liriano's major league service time.
Ah, but that was exacty the point wasn't it? Liriano entered the season with 2 years and 32 days of service time. If he was on the team starting in April, he would end the season with 3+ years of service time which
a) guarantees arbitration
b) guarantees arbitration as a third year player and
c) puts him on track to become a free agent after 2011.
And if you think that little ticking clock wasn't at the top of his and his agent's mind, you're kidding yourself. You can be damn sure there would be plenty of resentment if he "wasn't being given a chance" as Bill Smith so aptly put it.
Three starts later, things were much clearer for the team, the agent, and probably the player. Liriano needed to redevelop his control. His performance wasn't just bad, and might have even gone beyond damaging financially. It was embarassing. And that's the kind of thing that can derail a player's career and is in nobody's self-interest.
The good news, believe it or not, is that Lirano continued to struggle with his control in Rochester. So this isn't just some mental block about the majors. He has some work to do, and he's now probably in the best place to do it, under the less-bright, less-hot lights.
But it also means that there are going to be some artificial deadlines, times when the clock is going to be ticking a little louder in Francisco's and his agent's head. I count about 13 more days on the major league roster, giving him a current total of approximately 2 years and 45 days. So the magic dates are:
  • Mid-May - I suspect he's pressing a bit now, because he'll need to be called up in the middle of this month to get the other 135 days he needs to reach three full years of service time. that would get him more in arbitration and put him on track to become a free agent a full year earlier.
  • End of June - He needs about 90 more days on a major league roster to qualify as Super-2 player and be eligible for arbitration. That likely means a couple of million dollars in salary next year. To reach that, he would need to be called up to the Twins by mid-June.
Calling up Liriano only cost the Twins a couple of starts, and seems to have got everybody on the same page as to what the next steps should be. But these artificial deadlines can either provide further incentive for progress, or get in the way of regaining confidence.
And I'm not just talking about the player. I'm also talking about the team.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Warranted Optimism

What a glorious day, eh?

It's May 4th, and the Twins lead the Central Division by 1.5 games. Even for someone who was optimistic about the Twins chances to be competitive this year - and I was - that's strange to say. But a modest five-game winning streak and series sweeps of the White Sox and Tigers have put them atop the division. And for today and tomorrow and most of Tuesday, a sense of optimism will be surrounding the Twins.

And there should be. I'm just not sure it's for the right reason.

We may have learned some valuable lessons about the Twins chances of making the postseason, but I'm not sure we learned that much about the Twins. They're still a young team, with plenty of pitching, a decent bullpen, an offensive core that is hit-and-miss, with a lot of youth. They'll need to manufacture runs, just like they have for the last decade.

They manufactured plenty this weekend. With Michael Cuddyer back, Delmon Young batting lower in the order, and Joe Mauer red hot, we finally saw what the middle of the lineup is capable of. Cuddyer had two runs and four RBI this series. Justin Morneau had four hits, three RBI and two runs. And Mauer was 7 for 11(!) with four RBI and three runs.

But the optimism shouldn't come from a mistaken belief that this team is becoming an offensive powerhouse. That's not going to happen until Mike Lamb, Young and Carlos Gomez are shaken out of their early season doldrums or just plain reach another level. After all, this team hit .320 this series, but they're still hitting just .266 this season, and are second to last in the American League in runs scored.

The optimism should come from what we're learning about the rest of the Central Division, which was supposed to be one of the best in the majors. It's not. Not only are the Twins the only team in the division above (or even equal to) .500, but the division as a whole is eight games under .500 against the other divisions. That's the worst showing for any division in the American or National League.

This weekend the Tigers looked like a fundamentally flawed team. They seemed old and one-dimensional, only capable of winning when playing station-to-station baseball. That's overly simplistic, but even Jim Leyland is talking about making drastic changes to their lineup to eek out a bit more production. Their ultra-hyped offense has been outscored by the opposition by 16 runs this year.

But, of course, that really points to the Tigers biggest flaw. Their pitching is nowhere near average, and it doesn't look like there's much that can be done to fix that. The Tigers are sporting a 5.01 ERA as a team right now. Dontrelle Willis should return fairly soon, but all that might do is bump their best starting pitcher out of the rotation. They're calling up guys who have pitched all of seven innings in AAA to help out the bullpen. And their best pitching prospect struggled in his last outing - at High-A ball.

But the Tigers aren't alone in their mediocrity. Looking at the rest of the division, it's hard to find a team that looks like a 90 game winner. The Twins lead the division but have been outscored by their opponents this year. The team with the best run differential in the division is the White Sox, but they did that while having the worst team batting average (.235!) in the American League. Plus, their pitching is a still a work in progress.

The Indians are the only other team in the AL Central who has scored more run than their opponents. They were a victim of very poor starts by pitchers CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, but both of them have shown some life lately. However, starting pitcher Jake Westbrook has gone down with an injury and slugger Travis Hafner has been in a slump for, umm, about 14 months now. With all that drama, we probably know the least about the Indians. And strangely enough, that probably makes them the frontrunner to be competitive this year.

Except, of course, for the division-leading Twins. Just a week ago I wrote in GameDay that this team really needed to take two games from the White Sox, so they could buy some more time for their young lineup to develop. So far, so good. I don't know whether some key players will grow enough this year to become an above-average offense. But it seems clear that they'll have they're getting plenty of time to sprout.

And that justifies the optimism we're feeling. Glorious day, eh?