Why Trade for Liriano and Use Him as a Reliever?

With Francisco Liriano heating up, and so few teams branded as definitive sellers as trade-deadline season gets ready to kick into high gear, interest in the lefty figures to pique soon. Earlier today, Ken Rosenthal reported that some teams prefer Liriano as a reliever. While Liriano could work out as a reliever, acquiring him to be one seems like a circuitous route to success.

During the last five seasons, Liriano has pitched in 119 games, and has started 107 of them. For much of that time, he has not been a successful starting pitcher — the only season of the five in which he has tallied more than 1.5 WAR was 2010. As a result, teams are going to look at him and wonder, does his stuff play up in the bullpen? Realistically, it’s hard to know.

Looking at his mix of pitches, he only throws two pitches other than his fastball. So, in the sense that he doesn’t have to try to limit his arsenal, or worry about getting beat by a pitch for which he doesn’t have a good comfort level, he could profile well as a reliever. His velocity would play well too. As MGL pointed out earlier this year, pitchers tend to gain 1.5-2 mph when converting back to the bullpen, and that bears out in Liriano’s small sample this season. As a starter, he has averaged 92.7 mph on his fastball, and as a reliever, he has averaged 94.1 mph. Perhaps he would gain even more velo if left in the role permanently, but the fact that he does see the bump you would expect is encouraging. Only five left-handed relievers — Aroldis Chapman, Rex Brothers, Jake McGee, Matt Thornton and Glen Perkins — are throwing harder this season than did Liriano in his brief bullpen stint.

It’s that last name though that has me questioning why you would want to mess with Liriano as a reliever. Why not just trade for Perkins? Perkins has built a strong rep in Minnesota, but with the Twins having Jared Burton waiting in the wings to take over late-game duties, Perkins should be just as available. He is also a better fit. For one thing, Perkins is used to being a reliever, as it’s been more than two years since he started a game. He doesn’t have a wide gulf in his platoon splits, while Liriano does, to the tune of a run and a half. And in general, Perkins has better control than does Liriano. Over the past two seasons, Perkins has walked two fewer batters per nine innings, while striking out nearly two more. And it’s not like Liriano’s control magically improved in his time in the ‘pen either.

Compounding the issue for potential suitors is that Minnesota doesn’t need to concern themselves with how other teams might use Liriano — they can comfortably value and market him as a starter, and therefore demand a starter’s asking price. There are very few sellers on the market — 11 of the 14 teams in the American League entered the All-Star break no more than 2.5 games out of a playoff spot, and while the National League is not that tightly clustered, most teams there are at least treading water as well. In other words, the Twins are going to have plenty of suitors for Liriano, should they choose to move him, and it would be a pretty inefficient use of resources to pay a starter’s price for him and then use him in relief, especially when the window of time in which you can use him is limited.

It would be foolish to draw on Liriano’s 9.2 innings of work in the bullpen the past two seasons and say he can’t succeed in the bullpen. Who knows, he could end up being the left-handed Dennis Eckersley. But that unknown is precisely the point. We have seen Liriano succeed for extended periods of time as a starter, and if you clicked the link for Jack Moore’s article in the intro, you know that the past month and change has been one of those times. We haven’t seen him do the same as a reliever. With so few teams definitively out of the playoff picture, buyers may need to get creative to satisfy their needs this month. But converting Liriano back to a relief role still may not be the best solution, particularly when a more proven relief commodity like Glen Perkins is on that same selling team.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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