Francisco Liriano: No-Hit Stuff From Day One

Francisco Liriano came to the Minnesota Twins in a trade with the San Francisco Giants. Who could be nuts enough to give that kind of talent up?

One of the worst trades in recent baseball history: A.J. Pierzynski for Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser. The Giants received a catcher in his arbitration years who was so disliked in the clubhouse that he wasn’t offered arbitration. The Twins received one of the better closers of his generation, a guy who had a couple of decent years as a starter, and an electric young left-handed arm.

One of the most misunderstood trades in recent baseball history: the very same trade.

There were reasons for the Giants to believe that they were selling high on Nathan and Bonser, but that wasn't really relevant Tuesday night. Tuesday night was about Francisco Liriano -- that electric young left-handed arm. When he came up with the Twins, he was so otherworldly and dominating that the idea of another team letting him get away was unthinkable. The Giants were the butt of baseball’s biggest joke.

Here’s what the Giants saw:

Year Age Tm Lg Lev Aff W L W-L% ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO SO/9 SO/BB
2001 17 2 Teams 2 Lgs Rk-A- SFG 5 4 .556 3.80 15 14 71.0 58 30 5 25 79 10.0 3.16
2001 17 Giants ARIZ Rk SFG 5 4 .556 3.63 13 12 62.0 51 25 3 24 67 9.7 2.79
2001 17 Salem-Keizer NORW A- SFG 0 0 5.00 2 2 9.0 7 5 2 1 12 12.0 12.00
2002 18 Hagerstown SALL A SFG 3 6 .333 3.49 16 16 80.0 61 31 6 31 85 9.6 2.74
2003 19 2 Teams 2 Lgs Rk-A+ SFG 0 2 .000 8.00 5 5 9.0 10 8 1 8 9 9.0 1.13
2003 19 Giants ARIZ Rk SFG 0 1 .000 4.32 4 4 8.1 5 4 1 6 9 9.7 1.50
2003 19 San Jose CALL A+ SFG 0 1 .000 54.00 1 1 0.2 5 4 0 2 0 0.0 0.00
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/3/2011.

The Giants saw a pitcher with an electric arm, sure. A lefty who tantalized people within the organization with his raw talent. A young pitcher who could be a top prospect ... if he could only stay on the field.

It’s not like 19-year-olds with live arms are rare. Maybe ones with the fastball/changeup/slider combo that Liriano featured at that age, but there are 19-year-olds out there with fantastic stuff. And when they’re a) in low-A, and b) unable to pitch more than 80 innings before being shut down for shoulder fatigue, sore elbows, forearm strains, and gingivitis of the wrist every season, it’s hard to designate them as an untradeable. Actually, it’s probably a pretty good idea to dangle a pitcher with Liriano’s minor-league profile like a shiny bauble in front of the other GM.

But when Liriano shot up through the Twins’ system the way he did -- he really was an unstoppable force of nature -- it was obvious the Giants had whiffed. It looked like they were poor evaluators of their own talent at best, criminally incompetent at worst. In 2006, Liriano was a sensation, pitching 121 innings as a 26-year-old, striking out 144 and finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting.

Then it happened. The guy who couldn't stay on the field as a teenager suddenly couldn't do the same as a major leaguer. He had Tommy John surgery, and his comeback was slow. In 2009, he posted a 5.80 ERA, trying to find the same zip and command he had as a rookie. Since then, he's been exactly as expected: a mercurial pitcher with all the talent in the world, but the durability of a Ferrari used to haul lumber through the Sierra Nevadas. He finished high in the Cy Young voting last year; he was an enigma for the first part of this year.

The Giants unequivocally made a mistake. There's anecdotal evidence that Liriano was something of a throw-in -- someone who wouldn't cause the Twins to hang up the phone if he weren't included in the trade. That's an ugly thought. But the idea of including a player like him wasn't absurd. He was a pitcher with talent, but he was so fragile, so far away from the majors, that no one could know what he would turn into. His no-hitter is the perfect encapsulation of his career so far -- he displayed his talent for anyone who would watch, and still no one knows what in the heck to make of him. Is he back? Did the mechanical adjustments he made work? Will he hold up?

Six seasons into his career, and those questions still loom large. But in one night, the story of Francisco Liriano's 2011 season took a sharp right turn. And if his season did, it's not too silly to dream that his career might have, too. When it's all said and done, the Francisco Liriano trade might very well be one of the worst trades ever. Right now, though, he's the archetype of a talented young pitcher. He's an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a filthy repertoire of pitches. The Giants should only kick themselves until it bleeds right now. It'll be a few years before we'll know if they should kick themselves until bones are broken.

If they want to get a head start, though, they could probably kick A.J. Pierzynski for a bit. Just a thought.

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