Wednesday, February 09, 2011

More on the Twins' logic with Liriano

On Monday, Nick Nelson and I wrote two different stances on the Twins decision to continue forward with Francisco Liriano on a year-to-year basis. Nick expounded the virtues of striking a long-term deal now as the Twins are seemingly in a position to leverage Liriano into a team-friendly contract while I believed the Twins are vindicated in their decision to remain on a flexible year-to-year basis based on Liriano’s injury history and potential for more damage. To be frank, I feel that both arguments are valid ones as I would have endorse a decision for the Twins to be aggressive with Liriano future despite his injurious tendencies.

Regardless of what your perspective is on the issue, whether the Twins are in the right to go year-to-year based on his risk factor or if you feel they are foolish to pass on the opportunity to buy low on Liriano, here is some insight as to how the Twins approach these types of deals. Last spring, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the team’s assistant GM, Rob Antony, who discusses various aspects of the team’s interworking, including how they approach long-term contracts. When asked about the then recent Nick Blackburn signing, here is what Antony said:
“With Blackburn we looked at him and his body of work over two seasons. He averaged 200 innings, been a .500 pitcher both years and his ERA has been 4.02 or 4.05 or something like that. You look at him and then say okay, if he does that for the next three or four years, what would he make each year? Now it becomes a business decision of if you go year-to-year, what would he stand to make in arbitration next year and if he backed that up where would he go the next year? You start putting down the numbers and all the comps that he has and you base it off of if he just does what he has done.  You don’t project that he is getting better – although we believe there is more in there. Instead of being an 11-11 guy, we believe he could easily be a 15-9 guy.
Then you take the numbers part, compare him to other players and compare what they got in arbitration. You consider what your exposure would be if you did go year-to-year with this guy. That way you limit your risk of injury if you go year-to-year. Heck, you can non-tender him if he gets injured. We looked at it and we ended up signing him to a $14 million deal. We looked at it, his comps, and what he can do and realized he would get more than that.
The other part is that we have our own checklist. That includes durability, health, makeup, does he deserve it. How is he going to handle security? There are some players that you just don’t believe that are going to keep driving to get better. They just settle in.  Fortunately we haven’t had too many of those. So we’ve done a pretty good job of evaluating who the guys are.”
The Twins approach to Blackburn provides us with some understanding of why they reached the conclusion to go year-to-year with Liriano. For example, health seems to be a very big attribute for them. He listed both durability and health – neither of which Liriano has demonstrated throughout his career, majors or minors. This was the crux of my explanation for why the Twins are exercising caution with him rather than assuming the risk.

At the same time, Antony cites that determining to go year-to-year becomes a “business decision” which means they that Liriano’s earning potential in arbitration cannot be completely out of line as some people suggest it could grow to if he has a Cy Young-caliber season. However, Antony conceded that the Twins “don’t project that he is getting better”. This might be the biggest kink in the logic for going year-to-year. I think most agree that given his numbers from 2010, he’s very likely to either duplicate or surpass his conventional statistics provided a little bit more defense (he had a very high BABIP) and a bit more run support. If he performs above his 2010 level, which is extremely probable, the Twins’ estimates may wind up being skewed. The caveat, of course, is if he reinjures himself.

Then there is the vague reference to makeup. Truth be told, I am in no position to actually weigh in on Liriano’s makeup. I cannot say if his attitude in the clubhouse or among the brass is viewed favorably or unfavorably. What I do know is that he has done some things that may have irked some of the front office members. For instance, prior to deciding to undergo Tommy John surgery in November of 2006, Liriano was rehabbing in Fort Myers in October when he left unexpectedly and without notice of when he’ll return. Then there was the issue stemming from his agent’s insistence of filing a grievance against the Twins in mid-July 2009, suggesting that the team was intentionally holding him down in AAA to prolong his arbitration-eligibility (in hindsight, good tactic by the Twins). Of course, the Twins pardoned Liriano for his agent’s doings. Do these instances equal someone with bad makeup in the Twins’ eyes? I can’t say. All I know is that it happened.

Obviously, you can reach your own conclusions on what should have happened with Liriano this off-season. What we do know is the Twins opted to go on a year-by-year basis and I maintain the sentiment that they have valid reason to do so.