Published May 5, 2018
Such is the state of affairs in big league baseball today that picking up a pitcher for $4 million is tantamount to snapping up something from the clearance bin at Wal-Mart.
Sometimes those clearance items are lifesavers.
Francisco Liriano is 34 years old. Conventional wisdom says his better days as a left-handed pitcher are behind him. And in an off-season that saw a bunch of mid-range free agents waiting for the phone to ring, Liriano didn’t get a call until after spring training had begun.
No wonder, really.
Liriano, who finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2006, was coming off a less-than-spectacular season in 2017, posting a 5.66 ERA and garish 1.66 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) split between time with the Blue Jays and Astros. If Liriano wasn’t a southpaw, his phone might never have rung.
But Tigers GM Al Avila placed that call, and on Feb. 23, he got Liriano’s signature on a one year, $4 million deal to lend some veteran presence to the Tigers starting rotation.
Today’s baseball: what’s $4 million?
At the time, it was considered as a flyer, nothing more, on a once prominent lefty. Yeah, that’s what today’s baseball finances are. Four million bucks is chump change.
There wasn’t even any guarantee, when the Tigers signed him, that Liriano would pitch well enough in Florida to make the team.
“(In 2017), I had a tough time with my neck and shoulder,” Liriano said last month. “I tried to pitch through it, but I wasn’t healthy.”
Today, Liriano sits with a 3-1 record, a 2.97 ERA and a stellar WHIP of 1.07. His presence in the Tigers’ rotation has been prominent, as it was for the Twins and Pirates back in the day. This year, the pain in the neck is the one that he’s causing hitters.
It might be the best $4 million that Avila has spent. For several reasons.
So many possible scenarios exist when you talk about the veteran pitcher from the Dominican Republic.
One, he could help anchor the rotation for the Tigers all year, serving as ace Michael Fulmer’s second.
Two, he could be flipped at the trade deadline for some prospects. You think there won’t be playoff contenders looking for a lefty arm come July 31?
Or three, Liriano finds the fountain of youth and the Tigers ink him to an extension. Stranger things have happened.
The rebirth of Liriano could be due to his reunion with Tigers skipper Ron Gardenhire, who had Liriano in Minnesota for the first seven years of the lefty’s big league career.
“Johan Santana was our No. 1 but honestly, there were times when Liriano was better than him,” Gardenhire said of Liriano’s 2006 season with the Twins (12-3, 2.16, 1.00).
Friday night, Liriano was at it again in Kansas City. He spun seven shutout innings in a scoreless affair. The Tigers rallied for two runs in the eighth, but it was a long half inning and by the time the veteran Liriano got back to the mound, his 34-year-old body might have gotten a little creaky.
Gardenhire blamed himself for the ensuing Royals uprising, which plated four runs. The Tigers lost, 4-2.
“Once (Liriano) threw the first couple of pitches, I’m going, ‘Here we go, we gotta get him,'” Gardenhire said after the game. “That’s something I should’ve jumped on right from the get-go. That first hitter, we could tell that long inning might’ve got to him. It looked like he might’ve gotten a little stiff.”
That’s what you sometimes get with those 34-year-olds. Their bodies don’t move through the calendar as easily as the younger players.
Francisco’s friend: his slider
The resurgence of Liriano—and I know it’s still early—can be mostly attributed to the return of his wipeout slider, which had flatlined in recent years.
“He’s so deceptive, as a hitter you don’t know where the ball is going to come from,” says teammate and catcher John Hicks, who in his role gets two perspectives of Liriano’s mastery. “When you don’t see the ball, you are going to guess fastball. And the ball just kind of appears to you – and then it’s a wipeout slider.”
“I remember Derek Jeter swinging at a pitch and looking in the dugout going, ‘Oh my God!’” Gardenhire recalled. “I was laughing because the ball just disappeared.”
This rising from the ashes thing is nothing new for Liriano. He’s MLB’s Phoenix, having won the Comeback Player of the Year Award twice—once in each league (Twins 2010, Pirates 2013). He twirled a no-hitter for the Twins in 2011.
The great Willie McCovey, a Comeback winner himself, said that he was happy to win it, but lamented the fact that he was a candidate for the award.
It’s true that you have to be bad before you can mount a comeback, and it’s true that Liriano has been in that position twice. Make that three times. Who’s to say that he can’t be a three-time Comeback winner this year?
For Liriano, the slider is an old, trusted friend. It’s like the golfer who has a favorite stick in his bag.
“No, I’ve never had to tweak it or make any adjustments with it,” Liriano says of the slider. “I just try to have the same grip every time and not try to do too much. I’ve been throwing it a long time. I try not to change anything. Just repeat the same mechanics every time.”
It’s only the first week of May. It could turn out that the Tigers are on borrowed time with Liriano. You never know with the 34-year-old pitchers.
But for $4 million for a one-year commitment, however this turns out—deadline flip or not—the Tigers will consider it money well spent.
And with Gardenhire at the helm, don’t bet against Liriano being a Tiger in 2019 and, perhaps, beyond.
Lefty starters who can get big league hitters out consistently don’t grow on trees.
But sometimes you can find one in the clearance bin.