Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 7/29/12

Kenny Williams reportedly worked his tail off to land Zack Greinke from the Brewers this week. The AL Central is up for grabs and the White Sox and Tigers have gone back and forth for the division lead in recent weeks.

Greinke would have solidified the White Sox hold on the division by giving them another top starter to go along with Chris Sale and Jake Peavy.

Williams was so entrenched in Greinke trade talks that he even searched for a third team to get involved after it became clear that his farm system wouldn’t get the job done. No deal was struck and Greinke got dealt to the Angels. The White Sox weren’t done shopping and turned their attention to a starter they have seen quite a bit over the last several seasons: Francisco Liriano. Williams acquired Liriano on Saturday from the division-rival Twins for prospects Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez. The White Sox didn’t part ways with all that much, so even if Liriano is nothing more than a two-month rental, the move was well worth it based on what he could provide down the stretch.

Liriano is a free agent after the season with modest salary requirements the rest of the way. He also won’t net the White Sox any compensation picks given the rules set forth in the new collective bargaining agreement.

However, he does upgrade the White Sox rotation, especially in the context of injuries: Gavin Floyd is out indefinitely with tendinitis and John Danks remains on the disabled list. And if Liriano continues to pitch the way he has after getting put back into the rotation, this could look like even more of a deadline steal.

Liriano’s season can be broken down into different segments, as he pitched atrociously in the rotation to start the season, was relegated to bullpen duty from May 14-25, and re-joined the rotation on May 30. While the breakdown below could certainly be viewed as fun with arbitrary endpoints, Liriano has flat out pitched very well for the last two months, but was so bad to start the season that his overall seasonal line still causes concern.

4/7 – 5/7: 6 GS, 26.2 IP, 9.45 ERA, 19 BB, 21 K
5/14 – 5/25: 6 GP, 7.1 IP, 4.91 ERA, 7 BB, 9 K
5/30 – 7/23: 11 GS, 66.0 IP, 3.68 ERA, 29 BB, 79 K

He allowed seven runs over 2.2 innings in his most recent start against the Red Sox, but prior to that outing, Liriano had a 2.84 ERA and a 77/28 K/BB ratio over ten starts since rejoining the rotation. He has simply been a different pitcher lately. He has produced 1.2 WAR in June and July, compared to his -0.2 tally from April and May. ZIPS is still heavily influenced by his terrible start to the season — and perhaps rightfully so — but Liriano’s terrific improvement over the last two months shouldn’t be ignored.

While the kneejerk reaction here is to assume that pitching coach Don Cooper will fix Liriano like he has so many other starters, it’s quite possible that he doesn’t need much fixing. Based on his performance over the last couple of months, it sure seems that whatever was bothering Liriano early on has been corrected, and he is well on his way towards reducing the erratic aspects of his starts while sustaining a higher strikeout rate.

The White Sox rotation will now feature Sale, Peavy, Liriano, Jose Quintana and Philip Humber. When Danks returns, Humber is probably the odd man out, even though it would give the team four left-handed starters in the rotation. Acquiring Liriano helps due to his own performance, but also because it bolsters depth when everyone is healthy, or even potentially allows the White Sox to shop other hurlers at the trade or waiver deadlines.

But based solely on swapping two essential non-prospects for a high-strikeout lefty who has thrown much better recently, this deal has the potential to provide the White Sox with a great deal of value.

Greinke would have basically guaranteed that the White Sox get ace-level performance over the next couple of months. Liriano could pitch to a very similar level if his June-July improvement is legitimate, and cost a great deal less. He carries far more risk than Greinke does, but Liriano isn’t a bad consolation prize. The White Sox just got better in an area of need and gave up next to nothing to make that happen.

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