If you, like me, were waiting on the Pirates to do something this winter to address their rotation depth issues, it looks today like we're finally going to have some movement on that front. According to LaVelle Neal, the Pirates have agreed to terms with lefty Francisco Liriano on a two-year/$14 million deal that's contingent upon a physical. The PG's Michael Sanserino says that that physical will probably happen after Christmas, so the deal won't be finalized until then.
Liriano's only 29, but it feels like he's already had a long, long big league career. Back in 2006, he burst onto the scene with the Twins, forming a pretty incredible 1-2 punch with Johan Santana in the middle part of the season that started the Twins towards a surprising AL Central title that year after falling well behind the Tigers early in the season. You may recall this start, in which he dominated a hapless Pirate team that was two games into an epic 13-game losing streak.
Of course, he was also 21 at the time and he threw a hard fastball and a hard slider and so his amazing rookie year ended early and he had Tommy John surgery when the season ended. He missed all of 2007 and wasn't quite right again until 2010, when he racked up 201 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings, to go with a 3.47 K/BB ratio and the lowest home run rate in the American League. Since then, Liriano hasn't had a BB/9 below 5.0 and Twins dumped him off to the White Sox at the trade deadline last year.
This is a signing where it's very easy to make a case from both sides. Liriano's still got a great arm (his average fastball last year was 93 mph) and when he's good he keeps the ball on the ground a ton (career GB%: 47.5%). As a lefty that had some home run problems over the last two years, PNC Park is a great fit for him because of the way that it suppresses home runs for right-handed hitters. The Pirates' coaching staff seems to have had pretty good luck with pitchers that struggle with control and they like working with groundball pitchers, and so it seems to me like this is the sort of pitcher that Ray Searage and Jim Benedict and company salivate over. If they can turn Liriano around, they basically just picked up a front-line starter for the same price as Joe Blanton.
On the flip side, Liriano's had two good years in his entire career. He's struggled with control recently, he's never topped 200 innings, and $14 million isn't expensive for what his ceiling represents, but it's incredibly expensive for a team like the Pirates if he turns out to be a total bust.
Laid out simply, this is a pretty big gamble by the Pirates. They could've kept the status quo for half this price with Jeff Karstens, but they decided to take the money and swing for the fences with Liriano instead. It's far from a sure thing, but the potential payoff here is awfully high. I'm honestly not sold on Liriano finding his way out of the woods in Pittsburgh, but if you present this to me as Liriano vs. Karstens, then I'd tell you that this is the sort of risk that I'm perfectly fine with the Pirates taking. Rotations with Jeff Karstenses and Kevin Correias have their limits, as the Pirates learned in the last two seasons. Liriano is an entirely different kind of pitcher and while risk exists, I think the Pirates are much better served by rolling the dice like this than sitting on their hands.
Comment from fangraphs which I feel like summarizes the case against the signing pretty well:
This is nice and all, but isn’t this still a terrible deal?
How many teams truly valued Liriano at 2/14? They must think he can cut down on the walks or that their team defense is better than defenses he’s had playing behind him in the past.
Even his peripherals aren’t that great. + he also has the durability concerns unlike a guy like Joe Blanton who was mentioned.
This is the same team that let Jeff Karstens go for nothing like they had a surplus of SP earlier this offseason.