Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
Is Francisco Liriano a fantasy ace?
Risk. That's the word my colleagues bandy about when we discuss Liriano, which, admittedly, is often when I'm involved. I think Liriano is the most underestimated pitcher in the league coming into this season, 13th in our staff pitcher rankings and the 14th starter off the board in ESPN live drafts.
Clearly, despite his being more than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, there are still those who question whether Liriano can put together a season which features equal measure of quantity and quality. But with Cole Hamels' recent elbow worries, I can count on one hand the pitchers I'd want ahead of Liriano: Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Brandon Webb and CC Sabathia, in that order. And in my books, that makes Liriano a fantasy ace.
Let's go through the numbers. A fantasy ace should be a good bet to compile at least 200 innings, allowing the wins and strikeouts to pile up and the ratios to mean more. So how many innings is it reasonable to expect from Liriano V2.0? Last season, including his minor league and major league numbers, Liriano made 34 starts spanning 199 1/3 innings. Let's be reasonable and give Liriano 33 turns through the rotation, which is the minimum the previous Twins ace, Santana, had in his four years as a full-time starter. In 2006 and 2008, as a starter, Liriano averaged a hair more than six innings per start, so 33 starts at six innings each would give us 198, basically the same workload as last season. Let's put down 200 innings as our safe number.
The upside? If Liriano cranks up his pace to the 12 "normal" starts he had in 2006 (which excludes his two April starts when he was being stretched out and his two post-July starts that were cut short by the elbow injury) he'll average 6 2/3 innings, enough to boost his projection to 220 innings. Let's make that our best-case-scenario number.
What can he do in those innings, strikeout-wise? Again, let history dictate it. If you take Liriano's 16 starts in 2006, ignore the three atrocious April starts in '08 and add the August and September starts from last season, you get 27 starts and a strikeout rate of 9.4 per nine innings. In the interest of keeping our feet on the ground, let's call a 9.0 K/9 the best-case scenario. What's the bottom, though? In his 11 starts after his recall from Rochester, Liriano managed an 8.2 K/9 rate. There's no reason to expect he'll deliver any less than that.
Can Liriano really be effective when he's not striking out more than a batter per inning? As Jason Grey pointed out in a recent clipboard, Liriano has lost a couple of miles per hour off his fastball and he won't be relying on his slider as much, helping alleviate the stress on his elbow to mitigate the risk of reinjury. However, "[Liriano] can do just fine fanning eight batters per nine, especially as his pitches still have life and movement. He won't be that 'out of this world' pitcher we saw in '06, but he could still lose quite a bit from some of those numbers and be among the top starting pitchers."
Let's quantify that last statement. In '06, Liriano posted a 1.00 WHIP and managed a 2.16 ERA. Post-return, he managed a 2.74 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP. For his career, he owns a 3.14 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. During his rehabbing stint at Rochester, he posted a 3.28 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. Sensing a trend? Conservatively, let's give him the two worst numbers of the bunch, a 1.18 WHIP and a 3.28 ERA.
The final piece of the stats puzzle: wins. It's hard to predict wins. They can be fickle. But we do know this: In seven seasons under Ron Gardenhire, the Twins have averaged 89 wins a season. Joe Nathan is one of the best closers in the business and the Twins are a setup-man factory, so if a starter can deliver a lead into the seventh, this is as good a team as any to convert the save. In 34 career starts, including those injury-shortened and early 2008 disasters, Liriano is 18-9.
Put it all together now and even using our conservative numbers, you're looking at 200 innings, 184 strikeouts and high-teen wins with terrific ratios. Using a combination of the more optimistic projections gets us to 220 innings, 220 strikeouts and in the neighborhood of 20 wins with a sub-3.00 ERA and a WHIP around 1.14. And this is the 14th pitcher off the board? Right, there's still that dreaded reinjury risk, isn't there?
For the answer to that, I turn to injury expert Stephania Bell, who in her injury primer explains that " total body rehab [after Tommy John surgery] may be a big reason that throwers feel they can 'throw harder' after such a surgery. Their delivery may well be aided by the fact that their body is in better shape, placing less demand on the arm itself. Although pitchers can come back with a solid performance in the first year, statistics seem to reflect a two-year timetable to truly return to form." It should be noted again that Liriano underwent surgery on Nov. 6 2006, two years and five months removed from Opening Day 2009, and the return of his control in August 2008 also coincides with this timetable. But just to make sure I wasn't putting words in her mouth, I asked Ms. Bell how much of a risk she assigned to Liriano reinjuring himself this season and she responded that "at only 25 years old, and with Tommy John surgery well behind him, there is no reason to think that Liriano can't enjoy a productive, injury-free season."
Just because Liriano hasn't strung together 33 starts at the major league level from April through September of a single calendar year doesn't mean he's incapable of it. It just means you don't have to pay for it on draft day and then enjoy as it finally happens.
Pierre Becquey is a senior fantasy editor for ESPN.com. He previously published under the pseudonym "Pete Becker" and was recognized by the FSWA for the best fantasy baseball article (Web) in 2007.