While I was covering a Binghamton Mets game for Mets Inside Pitch back in 2005, I saw a young left-hander make a start for the New Britain Rock Cats. I turned to now Yankees.com beat writer Bryan Hoch, who was the Managing Editor of Inside Pitch at the time, and said “This kid is going to be a stud!”
The kid was Francisco Liriano, and after battling back from Tommy John Surgery, he has once again become just that.
The 2005 season would be a magical one for Liriano, who would not be in New Britain for long. He was promoted to Rochester in June of that season, and all he did was go on to be named International League Rookie of the Year. In addition, Liriano would be rated the top prospect in the Eastern League, the top pitching prospect in the International League, and the second best prospect in the IL as well.
In September, Liriano was promoted to the big club, making his Major League debut out of the bullpen. He would go on to make his first start against the Detroit Tigers on September 14th, a team in which he would record his first Major League win against on September 30. This roller coaster ride would end with him being named the Twins top prospect heading into the 2006 season.
Any Twins fan can remember the 2006 season all too vividly, as the “Franchise” would baffle hitters before an injury cut down his season. Still, Liriano would make the All-Star team, set a Twins rookie record with 144 strike out, and post a ridiculous 12-3 record in 28 games, making 16 starts. He would go on to finish third in the Rookie of the Year race, placing behind Justin Verlander and Jonathan Papelbon.
However, the hopes and dreams of the organization almost crumbled when Liriano had his TJ Surgery in November, as many of the loyalist of Twins fans wondered if he would make it all the way back. If we would ever see that amazing slider, or that high and tight fastball that made him an instant superstar to Twins fans. It took three years, but that arsenal is back, and Liriano is off to a Cy Young-type start in 2010.
After leading the Twins organization in wins in 2008, as well as strikeouts, innings pitched, and starts, Liriano would get the Opening Day nod in 2009. With Johan Santana gone, and the Twins desperately needing him to be the pitcher he was 2006, Liriano faltered, going 5-13 for the eventual American League Central Champions. In 29 appearances, with 24 of them being starts, Liriano posted a 5.80 earned run average, and many people figured he was done.
After being put on the 15-day Disabled List with arm fatigue in August, Liriano was mostly used out of the bullpen in his return, and posted numbers that were nowhere near what he had done for most of his career. With his role on the team in doubt, Liriano headed to spring training, not sure where he fit in Manager Ron Gardenhire’s plans. But Gardy new all along.
As Liriano grabbed the final rotation spot out of camp, even those inside the organization wondered what they would get out of him. No longer looked at as the future ace of the organization, Liriano just needed to get outs, and keep the chain moving. In 2010, he has done more than that.
After Tuesday’s ten-strikeout effort against the hated Detroit Tigers, Liriano has put himself back on the map, and is once again one of the dominant left-handed starting pitchers in the American League. Need proof? Look at his slider, which has returned to it’s old form, and watch as batters shake their heads as they go back to the dugout. And his questionable command? The fastball has been on point this season, which can only mean bad things for the rest of the league.
But maybe more importantly, Liriano has found his swagger once again, something that his teammates have noticed since the onset of the season. So while he is listed as the fifth starter on the depth chart, Liriano is back to being much more than that.
So far in 2010, Liriano is 3-0, has posted a 0.93 earned run average, and has struck out 27 batters in 29 innings of work. In his four starts, he has yielded only ten walks, a testament to his new-found command, and he has a WHIP under 1.00.
He is back to being the ace. The Franchise. The kind of pitcher that can carry a staff deep into the postseason. If Liriano continues at this pace, the Twins now have a 26-year old left-handed ace, which is exactly what they had in Johan Santana a couple of years ago.