Two of the biggest (yet most intriguing) question marks available on this year's free agent pitching market are Francisco Liriano and Brandon McCarthy. Both are 29 and were once seen as top prospects, and while both have dealt with injuries and inconsistency through their careers, it's Liriano who is struggling to regain his form while McCarthy is simply trying to get healthy enough to get back on the field.
Few pitchers are as electric as Liriano when he's on his game, though he's only really harnessed that ability over a full season in 2006 and 2010. It seemed as if that 2010 year signalled that Liriano was all the way back from Tommy John surgery and would now become an anchor in the Twins rotation, except things went south from there. Liriano posted a 5.23 ERA over 60 games (52 starts) in 2010-11, still striking out close to a batter per inning but also posting a 5.0 BB/9 rate. Perhaps there was no better summation of Liriano's potential than his May 3, 2011 start against the White Sox, when he walked six batters and only struck out two — yet still managed to no-hit Chicago.
The raw material is there for Liriano to become an ace and that's why, despite posting ERAs north of 5.00 in three of the last four seasons, it's possible that he could find a two-year contract on the open market (or at least a one-year contract with a generous option for 2014). Being left-handed helps, but the belief still exists that the right situation or right pitching coach could flip the switch on Liriano and make him a top-of-the-rotation starter.
McCarthy's life, let alone his baseball career, was threatened on September 5 when a line drive from Erick Aybar struck the right-hander in the head. After undergoing surgery to relieve cranial pressure on his damaged skull and brain areas, the great news is that McCarthy is recovered (and tweeting) and has been cleared to do his regular offseason training work. While a freak incident, the head injury was just the latest in a series of maladies that has plagued McCarthy throughout his career, such as elbow problems and a stress fracture in his throwing shoulder.
While McCarthy is not yet free of the injury bug, he at least has delivered strong results when he's been on the mound. The righty has a 3.29 ERA and a 4:1 K:BB ratio in 43 starters in Oakland, finally delivering on the potential he showed as a prospect in the White Sox system. McCarthy overhauled his pitching mechanics before the 2011 season and turned himself into a pitcher who relies on grounders (a 46.7% groundball rate in 2011) and command — he has a 1.6 BB/9 in 2011-12, less than half of the 3.4 BB/9 he posted over his first five seasons. While his ERA was a run lower at the pitcher-friendly Coliseum than it was on the road, McCarthy's skillset should translate well to most ballparks.
If we were judging these two pitchers based purely on recent results, McCarthy is easily the better choice; had Aybar not hit that liner, this wouldn't even be a valid comparison, as McCarthy would've been in line for a three- or four-year contract. That being said, McCarthy's injury history can't be ignored, which is part of the reason why MLBTR's Tim Dierkes ranked Liriano higher than McCarthy (#28 to #32) on his list of the top 50 free agents of the offseason. A power arm will always carry that extra bit of allure, especially an arm like Liriano's that has shown occasional greatness.
Both pitchers are being courted by several teams, from big-market clubs looking for back-end rotation help to smaller-market teams hoping to find an ace at a relative bargain price.