The Pirates made surprising headlines this morning when they agreed to a deal with free agent pitcher Francisco Liriano. They will pay him $14M over two years. Liriano, a 29-year-old lefty who spent his whole career with Minnesota before a midseason trade to the White Sox in 2012, is a pretty high-risk signing with the potential to be dominant but also the potential to be a disaster.
After establishing himself as a very solid young lefty early in his career, Liriano’s been very inconsistent. He had a fantastic 2010 season (3.62 ERA, 9.4 K/9–good enough to get a couple Cy Young votes) but fell off dramatically in 2011 and 2012. A big reason for that has been his control; he walked five batters per nine innings in each of those seasons, resulting in ERA’s north of 5.00. He’s also had some injury problems (TJ surgery in ’06 and a strained shoulder in ’11).
The good news with Liriano is that he gets strikeouts–lots of ‘em. He’s averaged more than a K per inning over his career, and even in his rough 2012 season he struck out 9.6 batters per nine innings. He’s got great stuff–especially for a lefty–and is also still pretty young (for a free agent, at least). His ceiling is quite high, and it appears that the key to reaching it is reducing his walks. In 2010 and 2006–his two best seasons–he walked 2.7 and 2.4 batters per nine.
I love the fact that the Pirates are rolling the dice on a high-upside guy like this, but I don’t like the cost. $14M would make for an incredibly terrible contract if Liriano continues to pitch as he did over the last two seasons. Adding him to the rotation makes it even more volatile; the Bucs are already entering the year counting on a pretty big unknown in James McDonald, and it’s far from a guarantee that A.J. Burnett will be as good as he was last year. That said, Liriano could become a great buy-low candidate much like Burnett was last season, and if he harnesses his potential he’ll be a top-of-the-rotation guy. FIP and xFIP indicate that he wasn’t as bad as his ERA in ’11 and ’12, but he’s consistently underperformed in that regard for his whole career. Liriano should, however, benefit from moving to the NL and PNC Park.
The Pirates weren’t going to get a sure boost to the rotation through free agency (and not really through trade, either), so this is about as well as they could’ve done in terms of finding someone that could potentially be really good. Again, though, the cost is significant and it’s a huge risk that could easily flame out badly. Generally, I like to see the Pirates take risks like that because they can’t really succeed by playing it safe. For example, I’d much rather have Liriano than Jeff Karstens because of his high ceiling (though Karstens offers the much higher floor) if it weren’t for his significantly higher price tag. That said, I can talk myself into the price a little bit because I doubt the Pirates were going to add a whole lot more this offseason anyway.
Liriano fills one of the rotation slots the Bucs previously would’ve turned to Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke to fill, so now they’ll be counting on only one of the youngsters to start the year. Liriano over either of them–even with the risk–is a much needed upgrade. As we’ve seen multiple times over the last year or so, they needed to overpay to get that upgrade. It remains to be seen how much of an upgrade Liriano will be. I like the risk, but it’s a very expensive one.
PHOTO: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports