Written Under the Influence: The Twins Vs. The Trade Deadline

by guest writer rmuellerleile

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Monday night the baseball world shifted as it does every year approaching the trade deadline.  A starting pitcher, Ryan Dempster was traded.  Or at least his trade was widely reported before the Cubs refuted that he had been traded to the Braves.  Cubs fans have been expecting the trade of Dempster since before the season started.  Mariners fans had not been expecting to lose Ichiro Suzuki, but he went to the Yankees for cash and two prospects (I do wonder how the Yankees could with a straight face demand money from the Mariners to cover most of Ichiro’s remaining salary for this year).

Much like the Cubs and the Mariners, the Twins’ season has been over since spring training.  When cheering for a loosing baseball team it’s easy for fans to speculate who will be leaving, and what they could bring in return.  For example, players like Carl Pavano and Denard Span could become a slew of prospects that would help the Twins contend in 2013 and beyond.  Matt Capps was never really liked as a Twin (or at least the fan base turned on him once Joe Mauer took a mulligan for the year), and Twins fans watched Wilson Ramos with .267 over 116 games in his age 23 season.  Anything they might bring would be welcome.

But with Pavano and Capps out until at least August with injuries and Denard Span still apparently taking his All-Star break, Twins fans’ hopes shifted to Franciso Liriano.

I am only just old enough to remember when Liriano first came up big for the Twins in 2006.  I do remember Twins before him, but he was the first player I remember coming up from the farm system and making a difference on the team.  Before Liriano I never really understood the impact a player from the minor leagues could have.  Sure I had seen Lew Ford show up one day and fill the Metrodome with calls of “Lewww” (which as a kid I thought was hilarious.  We could seemingly boo our own player, when in reality we were cheering him on.  I could think of no better inside joke).  Then came Liriano.  I had grown to accept that pitchers such as Boof Bonser and Kenny Rodgers would get a start from time to time, but suddenly those starts went to someone named Liriano, and no one could hit him.  He was filthy through June and July.  He went 8-2 in 11 starts, allowing 16 runs in 83.2 innings for and ERA of 1.72 while striking out 153.  This kid Francisco was out-pitching even the venerable Johan Santana, who at that time had at least some claim to the best pitcher in baseball (he would go on to win the AL Cy Young in 2006).

But then something happened that I was completely unprepared for.  His elbow exploded.  He missed all of 2007, a season which saw the Twins finish third in the AL central, an outcome I was able to rationalize by the fact that the Twins were missing their best starting pitcher, and that when he came back next year he would pick up right where he left off (or even better, he was after all two years older and therefore two years better).  The Twins would go back to winning at least every fifth game, and win somewhere between one and four World Series titles.

But when he came back, something was different.  He didn’t win all the time.  Baseball Tonight wasn’t saying his slider was the most unhittable pitch in the game.  At the same time I became obsessed with baseball, reading every book about the game our local library had.  When my parents bought my sister a Gameboy for road trips, they bought me Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract.  I got a baseball encyclopedia for Christmas, and actually read pages of numbers and names for hours.  How else was I going to learn there was once a player named Jack Glasscock?

While Liriano was out, the budding baseball researcher part of me came to terms with the fact that maybe the magic had worn off.  The Twins fan in me refused to accept this.  I had seen the decline of Dontrelle Willis with my own eyes, and I knew from books that Mark “The Bird” Fidrych turned into a pumpkin seemingly overnight, so I kind of knew what to expect when Liriano came back – he would be a completely different pitcher than the one I had known in 2006.

I came to terms with the fact that Liriano was mediocre.  Great some nights, sure, but awful on others.  You never felt cheated when you got tickets to a Twins game and Liriano was pitching, because you knew he could be great, but if he gave up seven runs to the A’s in four innings you would just have to say “That’s Liriano, you never know what you get” and move on.  The stuff wasn’t the same.  As of right now he is the longest tenured pitcher in the Twins’ rotation (not that Scott Diamond and Sam Deduno are much competition), but only if you are willing to overlook his bullpen stint early this season where he went to clear his mind.

That is the Liriano Twins fans have come to know.  This year he had a dominant spring training where he looked like he was back.  As soon as the regular season started he was pretty terrible, he went to the bullpen for a spell, which wasn’t even average, and since coming back into the rotation he has been pretty darn good.  His past two starts before Monday night were actually really good, striking out 15 and 10 and in the earlier start inducing more swinging strikes than any major league pitcher in a game since Johan Santana wore a Twins uniform.

Twins fans, myself included, had hope that Liriano had as much value now as any pitcher available on the trade market (obviously he is no Cole Hamels or Zach Grienke, but I would bet good money Liriano gets traded, the other two, who knows?).  Make no mistake I hoped he would get traded, the Twins need any kind of minor league depth they can get, and Liriano is the best hope for that.  I read on twitter about the scouts from the Blue Jays, Braves, and it seemed every other team still in the hunt who had attended his last starts.  Even tonight when I heard it was a full house in Chicago where Liriano was pitching, I made a joke that of course the seats were full, scouts from every team were going to be there.

So what did Liriano do tonight?  He crapped the bed.  I suppose I should have Anthony LaPanta was calling the game for the Twins as a bad sign, but seven runs in 2.2 innings was really, really bad.  Of course even before tonight he was completely capable of self destructing in a game, but if Terry Ryan was talking to the GM of desperate team he could point to the fact that the last “bad Liriano” start was before he did his time in the bullpen, and he has been a changed pitcher since then.

It turns out that Francisco Liriano is the same pitcher Twins fans have known for the past five years.  When traded, he won’t bring a package of prospects who will turn the Twins farm system around, starring next to Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano on the teams I will cheer for in years to come. A part of me wants to keep him, because the magic could always come back, but after five years of waiting… it just doesn’t look promising.  There is just too much history between Liriano and Minnesota.  Throw him into a pennant race somewhere else.  Let him start a playoff game in the National League.  Let some other team and city hope that they get the “good Liriano” on any given night.  Twins fans and Liriano just have too much history.  He was the first absolutely electric prospect I rooted for, but at some point you just have to move on.  Mark Fidrych was only “The Bird” for one season, as far as I’m concerned the Twins are playing with house money, and It’s time to cash in.

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