Coming off of their best season since 1997, the Pittsburgh Pirates are attempting to move forward and become a contender again. They were in the postseason conversation into August for the first time in years and were even buyers at last year’s trade deadline. This offseason, they’ve also done some spending. They signed catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17-million contract to add to their offense. Now, they’ve added another arm to their rotation, by agreeing to a two-year, $14-million deal with Francisco Liriano.
There was a time when Liriano was nearly untouchable. As a 22-year-old with the Minnesota Twins in 2006, he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and struck out 144 in just 121 innings. It was a performance good enough for him to make the American League All-Star team and finish third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He had all the makings of a future ace.
His career was derailed, though, as he missed the entire 2007 season after having Tommy John surgery. He returned with a nice, albeit shortened, 2008 season, going 6-4 with a 3.91 ERA in 14 games. He took a huge step backward the next year, however, going just 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA. He followed that up with what may have been the most complete season of his career, with a career-high 14 wins, a 3.62 ERA, and 201 strikeouts in 191.2 innings. It was a performance good enough to earn him the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Since then, though, it’s been back to mediocrity. In two years, his record was just 15-22 and his ERA was well above 5.00.
His regression may have to do with the fact that he doesn’t seem to have the arm strength or control he once did. During his impressive 2006 campaign, Liriano’s fastball could consistently hit 97 mph. He hasn’t gotten back to that point since his surgery. His highest average fastball speed was 94.2mph in 2010–not so coincidentally his best season since 2006. His fastball averages in the other four years since 2008 were 90.0, 91.5, 91.8, and 93.3 in 2012. Though his fastball showed more signs of life last year, his 5.0 BB/9 rate over the last two years is the highest of his career and also contributes to his ineffectiveness.
This signing for the Pirates comes with clear risk, especially at $7-million a year. The Chicago White Sox hoped he would be able to contribute during their playoff push last year when they traded for him mid-season, but he only disappointed. Now he’s being brought to Pittsburgh to join a starting staff that was in the bottom half of the National League last year.
Liriano will be joining AJ Burnett, James McDonald, Wandy Rodriguez, and, possibly, Jeff Locke in the rotation. After a turbulent tenure with the New York Yankees, Burnett became the staff’s ace and turned in a successful 16-10 record and his 3.51 ERA marked the first time it was under 4.00 since 2007. McDonald finished with 171 innings pitched for the second season in a row and had double digit wins for the first time in his career. Rodriguez is nothing if not consistent. He’s averaged 12, 199 innings, and a 3.47 ERA per year since 2009. The young Locke struggled during his brief time with the Pirates last year, but has shown some success in the minors. The team may still try to trade for a starter so Locke may not find himself in the rotation when the season begins.
The Pirates signed Liriano based on his upside. If he is able to maintain his fastball velocity and regain the command of his pitches, he could be a very good addition to the rotation, especially in the National League. That’s hardly a given, though, based on his track record of the last couple of years. But if he is able to improve, even marginally, the Pirates could have a decent rotation in 2013 and, if things come together just right, they could just post their first winning season since 1992.