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  • Wondering What Francisco Liriano Could’ve Been


    Ted Schwerzler

    Francisco Liriano announced his retirement from Major League Baseball today. After 14 years, 419 games, and over 1,800 innings, he’s calling it quits. As a Minnesota Twins fan, though, it’s worth wondering what could have been thinking back to 2006.

    Image courtesy of Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports

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    Having made his Major League Debut in 2005, Liriano had just 23 2/3 innings under his belt coming into the 2006 season. Ron Gardenhire put Liriano on his Opening Day roster, but the talented lefty was set to begin out of the bullpen. He made his season debut in the second game, throwing two innings of relief against the Toronto Blue Jays. Minnesota won that game 13-4, and Liriano tallied his first three strikeouts of the season.
     
    From there, Gardenhire used Liriano mainly for late-inning work. Across 12 games, Liriano pitched 22 1/3 innings of relief work, compiling a 3.22 ERA and impressive 32/4 K/BB mark. Of the eight earned runs given up, five came in a three-inning clunker against the Detroit Tigers. Minnesota lost that game 18-1, and it was the lone stain on Liriano’s relief work.
     
    Then the switch happened. On May 19, 2006, Francisco Liriano took the ball to start for the Twins against the Milwaukee Brewers. He didn’t relieve a game again the rest of the way. Against the Brewers, Liriano went five strong innings giving up just one run on two hits while striking out five. A few turns later, this time against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 16, 2006, Liriano punched out double-digit batters for the first time in his career. Notching 11 strikeouts against the Buccos, Liriano improved to 6-1 on the season, and his ERA sat at just 2.16. 

    Facing the Brewers again on July 2, 2016, Liriano set a new career-high in strikeouts with 12. Throwing eight shutout innings, Liriano pushed his ERA down to 1.99. After a couple more wins, Liriano then put a bow on his early work with a 10 and 12 strikeout performance against Cleveland and Detroit, respectively.
     
    Then things changed. Making a start against the Tigers on August 7, 2006, Liriano threw just 67 pitches while allowing four runs on ten hits before being lifted. He was scratched the start prior with forearm inflammation and then lifted against Detroit with what was called a left elbow injury. After an MRI revealed only inflammation on July 31, Liriano was set for another one and told reporters he was more scared this time, saying, “it bothered me. It’s getting worse you know.” Liriano returned for a start on September 13, 2006, but lasted just 27 pitches before his season was over. He had suggested hearing a pop in his elbow. The 1st place Minnesota Twins would be without one of their top arms, ultimately falling to the Oakland Athletics in the American League Division Series.
     
    Discussing the MRI’s Liriano had undergone, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said, "The MRI came back exactly the same as the previous one. He has a ligament strain, but there is no structural damage. That's the good news.” On September 15, 2006, surgery was not the planned course of action. Fast forward less than a month, and on November 6, 2006, Francisco Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery.
     
    Working on getting back from his procedure, Liriano returned to the mound for Minnesota on April 13, 2008. It was his first start in more than a year, and the rust showed. He allowed four runs on six hits and didn’t make it through the 5th inning. Throwing his fastball at just 91.9 mph, he’d lost nearly 3 mph off the 94.7 mph he averaged in 2006. The All-Star and third place Rookie of the Year finisher didn’t look the same and ultimately never would.
     
    Those 121 innings from a 22-year-old Liriano in 2006 were among the highlights of the Minnesota Twins during the 2000s. Paired with Johan Santana, Ron Gardenhire appeared to have a duo of lefties that could mow down even the best opposing offenses. Playing 12 more seasons and putting up a 4.28 ERA is hardly something to scoff at, but there’s no denying that this is a talent you have to wonder what could have been. Liriano doesn’t have a shot at the Hall of Fame, but maybe he would have. Perhaps the Twins wouldn’t have flipped him for Eduardo Escobar in 2012. His career was solid but ultimately defined by a “what if?”

    Outside of Liriano as a player on his own, it's worth wondering how the 2006 Minnesota Twins season would've ended had he been a healthy part of the Postseason rotation. The Twins were ultimately swept by a good Oakland Athletics team, but they had to start Boof Bonser in game 2 and turned to Brad Radke in game 3. The Twins came in with home field advantage and have not won a Postseason game dating back to 2004. Just another part of the what could've been story.
     
    Do you remember back to that first season of Francisco Liriano? What did you think the Twins had in him? What are some of your favorite memories?

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    The way the Twins handled Liriano after his surgery should have gotten all of Ryan, Gardenhire, and Anderson fired. Out of a cannon. Into the sun.

    How do you mishandle an arm like Liriano that badly, for a mid-market team that needs all the arms out can get, and still manage to stick around for multiple years?!?

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    Will always remember a conversation I had with Seth before anyone was aware of his problem.  Gut wrenching for us fans.  Can’t imagine what it was like for him.

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    Remember being at the game In Sept 2006 when Liriano attempted to return to the rotation that year, before the playoffs.  Our seats were just above the third base dugout and we could hear a ton of the A’s chatter during the game.  Liriano had just dispatched Frank Thomas, and made him look silly doing it, and when he walked past the on-deck batter he told him “good luck to anyone trying to hit that #%+*%#+% today”.   HE WAS BACK!..and we knew what that meant!!
    The feel at the Dome that day was something you can’t forget; Peak Liriano back for the playoffs - no one could stop us!!!  Alas, a few innings later, he was pulled from the game and….the dream was over.

    Regardless, 2006 was the most remarkable and most interesting Twins season I’ve ever seen and Liriano was a massive boost to the plot all summer - thank you Francisco!

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    Remember lots of discussions on how Liriano’s nasty slider would put a lot of stress on his elbow. Almost if having Tommy John surgery was a fore gone conclusion. 
     

    When Liriano returned from TJ surgery, the issue became the consistency of his delivery. I remember seeing a chart somewhere that on Liriano’s effective outings, a plot of his release points would fit on a grapefruit. On his bad outings, the release point plot expanded to the size of a watermelon. 

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    Francisco Liriano had a physique that made you think workhorse pitcher. The torque on his elbow from throwing that devastating slider was just too much. Wonder what his career might have looked like if they had converted him to closer early in his career. But then, we had Joe Nathan and a slew of good bullpen arms so who would do that.

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    I remember beginning of July that year talking with co-workers about who was better, Santana or Liriano, By the end of the month, it was Liriano hands down. A bad game for Liriano was giving up 4 hits. We could have had the 1st and 2nd place Cy Young pitchers, and the Cy Young would have been Liriano.

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    He was the future for us.  It was so exciting to think of Johann, Francisco and Brad as the top three.  Not that the Twins would have afforded all three, but for a couple seasons I think we would have dominated the league.  To go from Liriano to Bonser was going over the cliff. 

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    I remember being at a game against the Yankees, must have been April or May 2006. The Twins took a tiny lead, then things started to fall apart. The Yankees tied it up, had men on base, and the top of the order up. Liriano came in and looked unhittable against an historically great lineup. He shut things down, then kept the door shut as the Twins took it into extra innings and won on a Morneau squibber into right. 

    Anyone who has ever seen a Twins-Yankees playoff collapse can just imagine what could have been if Liriano had kept that form for a few more years with the Twins.

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    If we had a healthy post-season rotation of Santana, Liriano and Radke (he pitched with a torn labrum!) in 2006, we would have won the World Series. No question at all in my mind, even though the bats didn't show up against the A's.

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    Liriano would have been exposed as the "throw strikes never" pitcher he was, but had he been able to avoid the injury in 2006, I also believe the Twins would likely have won the World Series. The UCL replacement was always going to happen with his throwing style and I don't believe it made a huge impact on his overall career. It was a nice, solid career, but he just didn't have control. Like hitters with big leg kicks, other crazy motions like Liriano's very unorthodox follow through lend themselves to critique where there are problems. Liriano's problem was not being able to throw strikes coupled possibly with long term durability if he kept the same slider he had pre TJ.

    In 2006, hitters simply didn't have a chance. There were no good MLB scouting reports and the velocity and movement of his slider gave him the name Liria-NO for hitters. Fun times.

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    I specifically remember Patrick Reusse saying on the radio in 2005 that an elbow injury was almost a certainty for Liriano because of the violent delivery he used to throw his slider. Human bodies are only capable of so much for a given period of time, and Liriano's given period of time ended in 2006. But, man, what a given period of time it was. It hasn't been many times that the Cy Young winner has been second-best in his team's rotation.

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    One of my favorite ballpark memories . . . first visit to Target Field in the inaugural season with my eight year old boy. He was thrilled about the bat give away, and it was a lovely Minnesota summer afternoon. We had nice seats right down in the right field bleachers right on the foul line. Liriano was on the mound for the start and summoned up some serious magic, with 11 strikeouts and 7 innings of shutout baseball, to lead the Twinks to a solid win. I recall lingering in the stands as long as we possibly could afterwards, enjoying the feel of a win by our hometown club and soaking up the sheer pleasure of the return of outdoor baseball. 

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