Commentary

Sixty Feet, Six Inches: Keep Liriano down

Updated: April 14, 2008, 9:36 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

I'm not yet ready to roast Ron Gardenhire over a spit for his comments Monday. But if the Twins call up Francisco Liriano to start Sunday -- Gardenhire intimated it as a possibility -- I'd call it a bad move. In fact, as tempting as it is for Liriano's fantasy owners to want to see their lefty savior back in the majors in mid-April, I think we should all prefer to see Minnesota play it conservatively. But that may not happen.

Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that "the one thing we know is Frankie is right on line [to pitch Sunday] if we choose to go that way, if [Kevin] Slowey's not going to make it." Slowey strained his biceps on April 3 and hasn't pitched in a game since; if he can't go Sunday, the Twins will need a fill-in. Now, I don't necessarily read that as, "Gosh darn it, we're getting Liriano in there!" The manager merely mentioned Liriano as a possibility. But even that, I think, was a bad idea.

Liriano went out Tuesday in a Triple-A game and showed he's probably not ready. He threw 88 pitches in four innings, striking out three, walking three, giving up five hits and three runs. Specifically, his command wasn't very good. Only 53 of his 88 pitches were strikes, and according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, even when Liriano was in the strike zone, he often got too much of the plate. Rochester manager Stan Cliburn said he didn't think Liriano was very sharp: "He got deep in counts. The only thing good I saw is he's confident in his breaking ball." All of this feedback is consistent with the maxim that Tommy John surgery patients often find their velocity returns very quickly, but the fine points of their control takes longer.

Why rush him to the majors? I know the Twins aren't throwing in the towel in April, but given that they dealt away the game's best pitcher and received a ton of very young talent -- most of which isn't ready to be in the majors -- even the most die-hard Twins fan has to admit that the odds of winning the AL Central are a bit long. Is rushing Liriano back really going to improve those odds? Even if the team waits an extra month, are the ramifications so horrible?

It's not impossible for Liriano to post a good 2007. Some of the more notable pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery have had mixed results in their first seasons back:

Notable Tommy John surgery comebacks
Name Surgery Date First-Season-Back Stats
A.J. Burnett March 2003 2004: 120 IP, 113 K, 3.68 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
Paul Byrd July 2003 2004: 114 1/3 IP, 79 K, 3.94 ERA, 1.24 WHIP
Adam Eaton August 2001 2003: 183 IP, 146 K, 4.08 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
Tom Gordon December 1999 2001: 45 1/3 IP, 67 K, 3.38 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 27 saves
Jon Lieber August 2002 2004: 176 2/3 IP, 102 K, 4.33 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
John Smoltz March 2003 2001: 59 IP, 57 K, 3.36 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 10 saves
Rafael Soriano August 2004 2006: 60 IP, 65 K, 2.25 ERA, 1.08 WHIP
Kerry Wood March 1999 2000: 137 IP, 132 K, 4.80 ERA, 1.45 WHIP

But the longer the team leaves Liriano out of the big league spotlight so that he can recuperate under low-stress conditions in the minors where the results don't matter so much, the higher I'd put the chances of Liriano being more effective in the season's second half. So while it's tempting both for Gardenhire and Liriano's fantasy owners to want to see their future No. 1 back in a big league uniform this weekend, the wiser course would be to let the kid pitch in Rochester until May.

Comings and goings

Starter Rankings

Please note that this list comprises my outlook for the entire season, not just the forthcoming week. As such, it doesn't change much here at the season's start. However, Johnny Cueto will not be denied as he makes his debut at No. 60 this week.

1. Johan Santana, Mets
2. Jake Peavy, Padres
3. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
4. Cole Hamels, Phillies
5. Erik Bedard, Mariners
6. Justin Verlander, Tigers
7. C.C. Sabathia, Indians
8. Josh Beckett, Red Sox
9. Dan Haren, Diamondbacks
10. Roy Oswalt, Astros
11. Aaron Harang, Reds
12. John Smoltz, Braves
13. Chris Young, Padres
14. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
15. Javier Vazquez, White Sox
16. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox
17. James Shields, Rays
18. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
19. Rich Hill, Cubs
20. Tim Lincecum, Giants
21. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
22. Carlos Zambrano, Cubs
23. Ian Snell, Pirates
24. Fausto Carmona, Indians
25. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
26. Tim Hudson, Braves
27. Scott Kazmir, Rays
28. Brett Myers, Phillies
29. John Lackey, Angels
30. Matt Cain, Giants
31. Ben Sheets, Brewers
32. John Maine, Mets
33. Francisco Liriano, Twins
34. Zack Greinke, Royals
35. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
36. Derek Lowe, Dodgers
37. Pedro Martinez, Mets
38. Ted Lilly, Cubs
39. Dustin McGowan, Blue Jays
40. A.J. Burnett, Blue Jays
41. Chien-Ming Wang, Yankees
42. Brad Penny, Dodgers
43. Bronson Arroyo, Reds
44. Jeff Francis, Rockies
45. Jered Weaver, Angels
46. Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers
47. Joe Blanton, A's
48. Greg Maddux, Padres
49. Tom Gorzelanny, Pirates
50. Phil Hughes, Yankees
51. Gil Meche, Royals
52. Kevin Slowey, Twins
53. Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers
54. Oliver Perez, Mets
55. Scott Baker, Twins
56. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox
57. Rich Harden, A's
58. Shaun Marcum, Blue Jays
59. Andy Pettitte, Yankees
60. Johnny Cueto, Reds
After missing his turn early this week, Rich Harden isn't going to make his scheduled start Saturday either. The oft-injured Harden played catch Wednesday and said he still had a pain in his latissimus dorsi. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Lenny DiNardo is likely to take Harden's turn. … Yovani Gallardo struck out six in 5 1/3 Triple-A innings Wednesday, leaving the Brewers to decide whether to activate him next Monday or have him make a final rehab start. Dave Bush may have saved his rotation spot with a better-than-awful outing Wednesday night, so either Carlos Villanueva or Manny Parra figures to get bounced from Milwaukee's rotation, at least temporarily. Eventually, though, I think Bush's spot will be in serious danger. … Matt Garza, the primary prize Tampa Bay got for Delmon Young, went on the DL Wednesday with a radial nerve irritation. For the moment, the Rays don't think it's a big deal but are being very cautious. Jeff Niemann figures to get the call from the minors, so he might be worth investigating in AL-only leagues. … Scott Kazmir threw a 42-pitch batting practice session Wednesday and reported no elbow pain. The Rays may have him throw one more BP, but Kaz should start a rehab stint soon. May 1 still sounds like a realistic return date. … With Oakland's rotation losing Harden and Justin Duchscherer, the A's called up Greg Smith (before Gio Gonzalez, it's worth noting) to start Wednesday's game in Toronto. Smith is known as a control pitcher, but he walked five Blue Jays in six innings, though he allowed only two earned runs. … Orlando Hernandez has a strained tendon in his right foot and will have to wear a protective boot for the next two weeks. Any thoughts of El Duque picking up the slack for Pedro Martinez will have to wait. Now Hernandez is likely unavailable for at least a month. Nelson Figueroa is one option in the Mets' rotation, though the team is reportedly close to signing Claudio Vargas. … The LA Times reports that Kelvim Escobar is still a few weeks from even starting to throw. Escobar is attempting to overcome a tear in his shoulder via rehab and without undergoing surgery.

Fools' Gold

Livan Hernandez, Twins: If I told you that an Opening Day starter who was 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP was available in your league, you'd probably be psyched. But if I told you that guy was Livan Hernandez? Hopefully, you'd pass. Listen, Hernandez was great on Opening Day and passable in his second start, but the memory of his 200-plus innings and 1.60 WHIP in Arizona last season is still fresh. A couple trips around the AL should remind Livan who he really is.

Kyle Lohse, Cardinals: Spring training is evidently overrated. The key to Lohse's resurgence? Missing most of spring training, as he didn't sign until mid-March. He hasn't given up a run in 12 innings. But this is a pitcher whose WHIP hasn't been below 1.37 since 2004 and is two seasons removed from a 5.83 ERA. Trust me, just when you think you're on steady ground with Lohse, he'll throw you for a loop. It's in his DNA.

Carlos Silva, Mariners: Silva's best trait as a pitcher -- the fact that he specializes in inducing ground balls -- doesn't even help him that much in giant Safeco. Signed to an insane four-year, $48-million contract this winter, Silva was certainly better in 2007 than he was in 2006 (when he featured a blistering 5.94 ERA), but he's still way too hittable. His career batting average against is .298. Don't be fooled by his 3.21 ERA and 1.07 WHIP through two games this year.

Tim Redding, Nationals: My friend and cohort Tristan Cockcroft mentioned that he bid for Redding in the NL version of LABR this week, but he barely (and fortunately!) lost out. Redding started 15 games for the Nationals last season and posted a surprising 3.64 ERA, but look closer: his WHIP was 1.45. Sure, Redding pitched well in the opener against Philly this season and his ERA in two starts is 0.82, but he allowed six unearned runs in his outing Monday against Atlanta and his career WHIP is 1.52. No thanks.

Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers. I know, one of these things is not like the other. Kuroda comes from Japan with a solid pitching pedigree, was awesome his first time out (three hits, no walks, seven innings) and then was OK Wednesday against Arizona (two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings). You'll also notice that Kuroda appears among my top 60 pitchers. But if we've learned anything from Daisuke Matsuzaka, it's that guys coming over from Japan are apt to struggle after the All-Star Break, as the wear and tear of smaller rotations and a longer season take their toll. So I say invest heavily in Kuroda now. Just be prepared to get rid of him in July.

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