Igniting the Cisco Inferno within

As most of you are aware by now, Francisco Liriano lit up the Dominican Winter League this offseason.

Winter league or not, it was an encouraging sign for the Minnesota Twins organization, which watched the young left-hander labor through a trying 2009 season. He finished the year with a 5-13 record, a 5.80 ERA, and eventually a demotion to the bullpen.

Hoping to right the ship, Liriano went to the Dominican and proceeded to dominate. He finished the regular season and postseason with an ERA of 0.74 in 48 2/3 innings, striking out 64 and, more importantly, walking just 7.

He tossed five shutout innings while striking out 10 as Escogido won the championship Thursday, a game which was available on ESPN360.com. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said his stuff has been filthy, but he said the same thing last year and look how that went.

But this time, there was video evidence, and those who watched were very impressed.

Granted, facing the Gigantes isn’t like facing the New York Yankees, but the top of Gigantes’ order was all major leaguers. And batting in the No. 3 spot was Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz, who participated in last year’s Home Run Derby. He’s no slouch.

The important thing in all of this was command. Well, and confidence, too. Liriano insists his confidence is back.

When you look at the pitch tracking provided by FanGraphs, there’s no doubt he’s lost a few miles per hour on his fastball. But his slider and change-up are pretty much the same that they were prior to Tommy John surgery. It’s all about location and setting up the batter. He has to command that fastball. He fell behind into hitter’s counts way too many times last year. 

It’s cliche to say that Liriano won’t be the same as he was prior to the surgery. Few, if any, ever are. And nothing will be handed to him this spring. It’s believed lefty Brian Duensing, who pitched very well for the Twins down the stretch, is in the driver’s seat for the fifth spot in the rotation.

But if Liriano can be what he was in 2008 – when after a return from the minor leagues he made 11 starts with a 6-1 record and a 2.74 ERA with a 60/19 K-to-BB ratio in 65-plus innings – he should have little trouble supplanting Duensing.

Even after the arm surgery, Liriano still stands above all others on this pitching staff when it comes to pure stuff. He has to find a way to control it again.

Liriano turning heads in winter league

Albeit in a different country, Francisco Liriano is starting to get the attention of the Minnesota Twins thanks to his performance in the Dominican Winter League.

"I just got a report that he’s throwing the living fire out of the ball down in the Dominican [Republic]," Ron Gardenhire told MLB.com. "He threw eight innings the other day and his fastball was 92-94 [mph] and his slider was filthy. That’s a really good thing. He could be the bonus if we can get him on track to go with the rest of the guys."

The Dominican Winter League is far from the big leagues. But his stats seem to show a guy who at least has the stuff to succeed at the big league level again.

In three regular-season appearances for Escogido, Liriano tossed 11 2/3 innings, posting a 1.54 ERA while striking out 17 and walking just two.

Then came the playoffs. In two postseason appearances, Liriano has tossed 10 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and striking out 10 with only two walks.

That’s outstanding control for a guy just a couple years removed from Tommy John surgery, and for someone who walked over four guys per nine innings last season.

The Twins aren’t banking on Liriano being a part of the 2010 rotation the way they did in 2009, when he started Opening Day before fizzling to a 5-13 mark with a 5.80 ERA. They don’t need to guarantee him a spot when they already know heading into spring training that Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey are all but assured spots in the Opening Day rotation.

Having said that, it’s not time to give up on him either.

There have been a lot of trade rumors thrown about regarding Liriano, since the Twins have a lot of depth in the rotation. But it would be tough for the Twins to get value for him. The Twins are much better off going into spring training with him and making him earn a spot on the team, which I assume they will do.

Yeah, not everyone comes back from Tommy John surgery. But the strange thing about Liriano’s comeback from the procedure which cut his 2006 season short and forced him to miss all of 2007 is that he was an effective pitcher in 2008 after a stint in the minor leagues.

In 11 starts for the Twins late in 2008 after returning from a demotion to Triple-A, Liriano went 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA, allowing less than a hit per inning and striking out 60 in 65 2/3 innings. He gave up a few gopher balls, which will happen when you have a guy that throws as hard as he does. But if he can limit baserunners, there’s no reason to think, even if he’s not Liriano v.2006, he could at least be Liriano v.second-half 2008.

On a side note, I noticed while looking up info on Liriano’s winter league appearances that catching prospect Wilson Ramos has been absolutely raking in the Venezuelan Winter League.

In 54 games playing for Aragua, Ramos is hitting .332 with 12 homers and 49 RBIs, slugging .582 during the league.

Ramos’ name comes up a lot in trade rumors. He had a solid year at Double-A last year and will probably open 2010 there again. Who knows? He could be someone the Twins would consider trading if they ever decide to re-sign that AL MVP they got playing behind the plate right now. Ramos is a coveted player by a lot of organizations, which is to be expected. Power-hitting catchers don’t grow on trees, though the Twins might have two in their system.

Liriano looking lost on the mound

Minnesota Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano had pitched better as of late. His ERA in the month of June was under 4.00, which was encouraging.

But Liriano – once called "The ‘Cisco Kid – had another rough outing Thursday against the New York Yankees. The Twins managed to squeeze 5 1/3 innings out of him. He gave up six runs. While only three of those runs were earned, he never looked in command.

Strike zone command has been Liriano’s biggest problem during his comeback from Tommy John Surgery after missing the end of the 2006 season and all of 2007. But Liriano was effective with the Twins last season, posting a 2.74 ERA in 11 starts after returning from the minor leagues.

So with his ERA at 5.47 this year, what’s up?

One of my new favorite Web sites is www.fangraphs.com. It’s a great site for really analyzing what specifically has changed from year-to-year.

The biggest difference I noticed when comparing 2008 to 2009 is that his fastball is getting hit far more than it did last year. His "w" rating for fastball – the "w" for any of the pitch types denotes runs above average – was -3.7 (negative is bad). So it wasn’t great last year, but this year, it’s at -17.9.

That’s enough technical mumbo-jumbo for me. Let’s just say it’s been much more hittable this year, a far more hittable heater than the average big league fastball.

Liriano has a lot of work to do. He’s basically re-inventing himself, which is easily noticed when you compare his numbers to those in 2006. Since coming back from the surgery, he’s now a fly-ball pitcher. His ground ball-to-fly ball rate in 2006 was 2.37. Last year, it was 1.03. This year, 1.05.

For Liriano to survive like this, he’s got to keep the ball down in the strike zone. But more importantly, he’s got to throw strikes. Solo homers are one thing; three-run jacks are another. Even his Zone Percentage (percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone) is down roughly 10 percent from 2006.

He’s going to need time. And the problem is, who knows what kind of pitcher he’ll be when he has figured it out. One thing’s for sure: The Liriano from 2006 is gone, and I’m pretty certain we’ll never see that one again.

Twins pitching takes steps in right direction

I’m not terribly excited by a line like this: 6 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 7 K.

But when Scott Baker manages to not give up a homer after giving up seven combined in his previous two starts, the Minnesota Twins obviously see progress.

The Twins lately have looked more like … well, the Twins. The starts have been better as of late, outside of that horrendous doubleheader against the Red Sox last week. Quality starts and inconsistent offense – that’s Twins baseball, isn’t it? 

Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins – the three guys considered back-end starters – have unquestionably outperformed the two co-aces – Baker and Francisco Liriano – so far this season.

Liriano is 0-4 on the season, pitching for the fifth time tonight against Tampa Bay. It’s a battle of two elements going in the wrong direction, as the defending AL champion Rays sit in last place in the AL East.

Liriano has had a puzzling season. For someone who has had Tommy John surgery, it’s easy to question his health while posting a 7.06 ERA so far this year. But he has struck out 17 in 21 2/3 innings, and when watching his starts, he looks like he has his stuff. And he’s actually been pretty good in his two home starts. Here’s the splits:

Home: 2 starts, 13 IP, 11 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 3.46 ERA, .229 BAA
Road: 2 starts, 8 2/3 IP, 10 H, 12 ER, 8 BB, 9 K, 12.46 ERA, .294 BAA

So maybe it is just a case of a guy lacking confidence – or focus – on the road this season. The walk numbers in those splits definitely jump out at you, along with the batting average against.

Whatever it may be, Liriano will be at home tonight and the Twins will need to see him take a few steps in the right direction.