Francisco Liriano’s last venture into the free agent market came on the heels of a down season split between the Twins and White Sox, and resulted in a low-risk two-year deal for the Pirates. After playing an integral role in two straight postseason appearances for Pittsburgh, the lefty will hit the open market in a much stronger position.
There’s little doubting that Liriano has the talent to be one of the most dominant arms in the game. As a 22-year-old rookie in 2006, he looked to be an unhittable force (2.16 ERA, 10.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9) that would have garnered Cy Young attention had Tommy John surgery not stopped his season at 121 innings. His recovery was longer than most, and while he struggled in 2008-09, he returned to form with a dominant 2010 season worth nearly six fWAR.
Over his past two seasons with the Pirates, Liriano has turned in 323 1/3 innings of 3.20 ERA with 9.4 K/9, 4.0 BB/9 and a strong 52.4 percent ground-ball rate. Sabermetric ERA estimators such as FIP and xFIP both peg Liriano’s true talent with Pittsburgh at a 3.26 ERA, so both old-school and new-school lines of thinking paint him as a well above-average pitcher when he’s at his best.
Part of the reason for Liriano’s resurgence with the Bucs is that he’s rediscovered some life on his fastball. The 31-year-old has averaged 92.8 mph on his heater over the past two seasons, whereas in some of his weakest seasons, his velocity sat 90-91 mph. He doesn’t have the 94.7 mph average he did as a rookie, but his average velocity is still tops among free agent lefties.
When Liriano’s velocity is working, he racks up strikeouts at a prolific clip. He’s whiffed 9.2 hitters per nine innings throughout his career (even including his down seasons), and this year’s 9.7 K/9 mark trails only Max Scherzer among free agent starters.
Liriano turned 31 after the season, so he’ll pitch the entire 2015 regular season at that age. That makes him younger than a number of his peers in the second tier of the starting pitching market, including Ervin Santana, Brandon McCarthy and former teammate Edinson Volquez.
For as good as Liriano can be, there’s no ignoring the inconsistency and injuries that have, to some extent, defined his career to this point. Liriano has finished with an ERA well north of 5.00 in three full seasons, and in two of those seasons he walked five hitters per nine innings. Agent Greg Genske of the Legacy Agency can point to Liriano’s longer-than-usual recovery from Tommy John surgery as the culprit for those marks in 2009 and shoulder inflammation for the 2011 season, but Liriano floundered under two separate pitching coaches in 2012 and was injury-free that year.
Even in his two excellent seasons with the Pirates, Liriano spent significant time on the DL in each campaign. The first was a freak accident — a fracture in his non-throwing arm sustained while falling in his apartment — but the second injury, an oblique strain, did cost him more than a month in 2014.
All told, Liriano has had seven trips to the DL in a nine-year career. As such, he’s topped 180 innings just once — back in his stellar 2010 season. As I noted in my profile of fellow injury-prone starter Brandon McCarthy, teams are likely to show trepidation when it comes to multi-year contracts for pitchers without a track record of durability. No matter how great the upside, the downside of receiving 100-120 innings and having to patch together that rotation spot with a potentially replacement-level arm is concerning.
Control has oft been an issue for Liriano throughout his Major League tenure as well. He averaged 4.5 walks per nine innings in 2014 and has averaged 3.9 for his career. The Pirates made a qualifying offer to Liriano, and while some were surprised by the decision, I expect him to reject in search of multiple years due to his age and recent success. As Santana showed last spring, even if the market collapses, it’s still possible to find a one-year contract at or near the value of the QO late in the offseason.
Liriano is married and has three children with his wife, per the Pirates media guide. They make their home in the Dominican Republic in the offseason. He comes from a good baseball family, as his cousin is Giants setup man/closer Santiago Casilla.
Liriano has a reserved and quiet image but is seen as an excellent teammate by those who have played with him and was asked to take up a leadership role with the Pirates in recent years, particularly following the departure of the veteran A.J. Burnett.
Beyond the top three starters on the market, Liriano is in the mix for the top second-tier starter along with names like McCarthy, Santana and Kenta Maeda. Liriano’s camp can likely build a case that he has the highest ceiling among those arms, and despite the undeniable risk associated with Liriano, it’s an arguable point. Liriano misses more bats than the other three and has had four very strong seasons at the Major League level, even if there was some distance between them.
A large number of teams are going to be in the market for rotation help, and many won’t be able to afford the likes of Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields. Liriano could be the top target for some clubs, and it’s possible that one of the teams who inks one of the big three could wish to add Liriano as a second boost to the rotation. The Red Sox are said to be eyeing multiple starters and have been connected to Liriano, and the Cubs, too, are known to be seeking multiple starting pitchers. Both teams will have a protected first-round pick, as will the Astros, D’Backs, Rockies, Rangers and Twins, each of whom has some need in the rotation (it’s unclear if the Twins would have any interest in rekindling that relationship, however). I’ll also add the Mariners, Yankees, Giants, Royals and Dodgers as teams I could see entering the mix, though the M’s of course seem likely to first focus on their offense.
An interesting point raised to me by MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes is that Liriano and Russell Martin could make an interesting package this offseason. A team that signed Martin would have less to lose than others in adding Liriano, having already forfeited a pick, and the two have worked well together in the past. The Cubs, Rockies and Dodgers seem like at least plausible fits in that regard.
Simply put, I’m of the strong belief that speculation regarding Liriano accepting a qualifying offer is largely overblown. Liriano will pitch all of next season at 31 years of age and is coming off a pair of strong seasons with flashes of brilliance in his past. There’s no ignoring the risk associated with his arm, but I believe that offers in the $10-15MM range could be waiting at the end of the offseason even if the multi-year deal Liriano’s camp covets ultimately fails to materialize.
Surrendering a first-round pick for Liriano is a risk, but there are 10 teams that can sign him for a second-round pick, and it’s not inconceivable that he ends up costing “only” a third-round pick if an aggressive team on the free agent front adds multiple players with QOs looming over their heads.
Players with this type of injury history and inconsistency rarely, if ever, get four-year deals, but we saw a less consistent Ubaldo Jimenez land four years last offseason. Regardless of how that deal looks now, it still serves as a reference point that upside can trump inconsistency. Liriano doesn’t have Jimenez’s durability so the fourth year feels like a reach (although I do feel it’s possible), but I believe he’ll receive some three-year offers. In the end, I’m predicting a three-year, $40MM contract for Liriano.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
This is the one free agent where the phrase “tread lightly” is in play for quite a few teams
Lee Foo Young
I can’t see someone giving up a #1 pick for him given his injury history. I see one of those teams with a protected pick signing him?
That’s probably correct. I’m sure some teams will look at his history and be worried about “launching pad” Liriano returning.
How about a team who’s already signed a QO guy, like whoever signs Martin or Shields? Like, if Boston of the Cubs get in on one of these guys I can see them losing their second rounder for the first and third rounder for the second.
Lee Foo Young
I am hoping that the Bucs can re-sign him. We need some SPs. We only really have Gerrit Cole and a bunch of #4 and #5’s.
Liriano will be hamstrung by the QO just like Santana, Morales and Drew were last year.
Cruz too. But I expect the same for Santana this year. No word (as far as I know) on whether he accepted or declined the QO, but after what happened last year after a so-so season this year, I think a Raise is pretty good, even if it’s only for 1 year. He should accept it.
Santana and Cuddyer should both accept their QO’s
He’ll probably end up getting a 1 year Santana type deal from a team that’s already lost a few picks. There are way too many comparable pitchers who won’t have a QO attached to them for him to get anything better than a 2 year deal.
Like Santana he’d probably be better served accepting the QO and hitting the market next year, where there will be far less competition and likely no QO attached.
Disagree on the deal he would get.
If you’re surrendering a pick, you want to get value out of it. And from his standpoint, why sign a 1 year deal at a depressed value only to go through the same thing the following year. Everybody has an interest in a multiyear deal at that point.
I really don’t think Ubaldo Jimenez is a good comparison. Yes both pitchers have been inconsistent; but, Jimenez had 5 3+ WAR seasons over his 7 year career, Liriano had only 3 3+ WAR season over his 8 year career.
Upside can trump inconsistency and Jimenez had way more upside.
You got to love his K/9 stats but the walks and QO is a killer. I’d be reluctant to sign him unless it is a one-year deal, low salary like Kyle Lohse two years ago, or be a team with a protected first round pick.
I can’t imagine a team giving up a top draft choice for him.
Texas, Cubs and Red Sox could all ditch a 2nd rounder for him. Most people expect the Sox and Cubs to blow there 2nd rounders on the big 3 anyways. Losing a 3rd round pick isn’t really a big deal anymore. All 3 teams I mentioned have a protected first rounder.
Losing your 2nd and 3rd round slot money is a big deal. It can control who you can select with the rest of your picks. Sure, it’s worth it for some teams, but it’s certainly still a price to pay.
Steve Adams, you predict 3/40, which is way overpriced. Im more in line with 3/39…cuz that’s how BC rolls!
Man I forgot the 3/39 thing. We need to bring that back.
Jimenez was 29 when he signed his 4 year deal. Liriano is currently 31 I think that as much as his inconsistency will effect his chances of getting a 4 year deal. I also think $40MM is just a little bit high as well, but it might be close for 3 years.
The FA pitching market is a lot stronger this year than last year, I dont think Liriano will get 3/40 with draft pick compensation attached and Scherzer, Lester, Shields, McCarthy, Santana and more on the market.
The only way I could see a 3 year deal being possible for him is if there is language in the deal protecting against the inevitable injury he always runs in to
If Liriano signs a 3 year deal I think the aav will be lower than the projected 13.3.I think 10mil aav over 3 years sounds realisitc so 3/30
Or a 2 year deal worth 11.5mil aav so 2/23
Man, how much money does MLBtr think teams have this offseason? We haven’t even gotten to the big players yet and I feel we’ve got as many 40+ MM contracts as last year. If it’s a down free agent market, rather than these lesser players making the same money as the superior players from previous years, wouldn’t teams just spend less on them? I understand teams are flush with cash, I just think that MLBtr is missing the reason that the FA market is so weak; I don’t think teams are going to spend their excess cash on the free agent market. I can see a lot of this additional cash going to extensions and salary acquired via trade. I don’t think Liriano scores this high, ultimately. I think he’s more in line for 35 or 36 MM over a three-year term. I do expect him to decline the QO but he might have a lot of trouble if teams are hesitant to give him three guaranteed years. After all, there’s a reason he would want multi-year security beyond just decrease in performance.
I don’t see losing the pick as that risky. It does impact draft signing money pool but it isn’t that significant. Signing Liriano may bolster a team so it doesn’t have to deal a couple top prospects (probably at least one number one pick) to get a pitcher in mid-season.
I cant imagine the Pirates make any attempt to bring him back for a multi year deal. In a year where I actually believe Pittsburgh will make legitimate offers to Martin and even Volquez , I think when it comes to Liriano they will cross their fingers he gets over payed elsewhere . There are many better values available to Pittsburgh for Starters that will leave a great deal more financial flexibility