First Pitch: Should the Pirates Trade Francisco Liriano?

This isn’t going to be a popular article. The title is going to lead to a lot of immediate “NO!” responses on Twitter and Facebook, approximately ten seconds after the article goes up. It might lead to people saying I’m crazy for this suggestion. Or, maybe some people will read the article and come away with the same opinions I have. I know some have already brought up the subject in previous comment sections. Either way, this is an idea I’ve been thinking about since August, and the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.

Trading Francisco Liriano.

NO! That’s crazy! Or is it?

Liriano just came off an amazing season. He had a 3.02 ERA in 161 innings. He had a 9.1 K/9 and a 3.5 BB/9 ratio. His advanced metrics supported the ERA, with a 3.12 xFIP. Today he was named the Sporting News NL Comeback Player of the Year. His 2014 option has already vested for $6 M, and he has a very real chance to make up to $2.5 M in additional performance bonuses. Even at $8.5 M, he would be a steal if he repeats his 2013 campaign. He turns 30 years old at the end of the week, so he shouldn’t be a risk for a steep decline. And if he repeats his 2013 season in 2014, he will be due for a huge contract, and at the least will bring back draft pick compensation.

So why would I suggest trading Francisco Liriano? All of the above.

Francisco Liriano is coming off a great season, and the Pirates would be smart to sell high and look for the next Liriano. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Francisco Liriano is coming off a great season, and the Pirates would be smart to sell high and look for the next Liriano. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Liriano’s value will never be higher than it is right now. The trade market could include a few top pitchers, such as David Price and maybe Max Scherzer. But starting pitching is always in demand, and a guy like Liriano should get a huge return if he was made available.

There are reasons to doubt that Liriano can’t maintain this success. For one, he has never had back-to-back strong seasons. He had an amazing season in 2010, then struggled the next two years. He had a strong year in 2006, then missed 2007 with an injury. His half-season in 2008 was good, but 2009 was horrible. And then there’s the injuries to worry about. Liriano has been injury prone in his career. The 2013 season saw his second highest innings totals of his career, with 161 innings. He has only gone over 136 innings three times. Year-to-year fluctuation and injury concerns aren’t just a Liriano problem. That’s a pitcher problem in general, but Liriano hasn’t shown himself to be the exception.

This is a bit more than just a “sell high” situation. It also involves the faith that Liriano wasn’t just a fluke.

The Pirates have had success finding reclamation pitchers. The Yankees paid half of A.J. Burnett’s salary, and got little in return in prospects, all because he had struggled the previous two years. With the Pirates he has been a top of the rotation starter. In fact, out of 74 qualified starters over the last two seasons, Burnett has the ninth best xFIP, ahead of off-season trade candidates like Price and Max Scherzer. Then there’s Liriano. He had a horrible ERA the previous two seasons, with some poor control. He bounced back this year, as noted above. Charlie Morton had his game completely overhauled in 2011, and after an injury impacted year in 2012 he bounced back in 2013 and looked like a number three starter. It has even worked with relief pitchers, such as Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez, and Vin Mazzaro.

All of these cases aren’t luck. Instead, they rely on three things.

1. A focus on throwing the two-seam fastball instead of the four-seam fastball.

2. An adjustment by Ray Searage, if needed.

3. The infield defensive shifts.

Number one is meant for more ground balls, and number two is usually designed to get more movement and angles, for the purpose of generating ground balls. The shifts only help the first two by making sure that a larger percentage of those ground balls turn into outs.

I don’t think Liriano was a fluke. I think he was part of a plan that has been working well for the Pirates, and should continue to work well going forward. Burnett, Liriano, Morton, Melancon, Gomez, and Mazzaro weren’t luck. They were part of a design to target guys with two-seam fastballs, get them to throw those fastballs more often and more effectively to generate grounders, and position the infielders to give the best opportunity to field those grounders. The system requires that Neal Huntington and his scouting department can find the right players for Ray Searage and the pitching staff to work with, so that the defensive shifts generated by the stats department can be completely effective. It’s the ultimate team strategy.

The argument for trading Liriano is that you could get a massive return. As an example of the return, look at what the Mets got last year for one year of R.A. Dickey. They landed Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard as the main pieces of the deal. D’Arnaud opened the season as the number 23 prospect in baseball, and is the catcher of the future for the Mets, making his debut at the end of the 2013 season. Syndergaard has been getting a lot of hype this season, and could be rated the same or higher than Jameson Taillon in next year’s rankings.

Or there’s the deal that the Rays got for James Shields. They landed Wil Myers and three other prospects for two years of Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliot Johnson. Liriano is only under control for one year, so he might not get the same return, but if he only gets a prospect as good as Myers, that would be worth it. And if you are sitting there thinking that this idea falls in with my “what would the Rays do?” line of thinking, you are right.

The Pirates could potentially fill a long-term spot by trading Liriano. They could land a long-term solution at first base, shortstop, or maybe a long-term alternative to Pedro Alvarez at third base, since there are no current options in the system. On top of that, they could add more prospect depth to an already strong system. It’s not like this can’t be done. Aside from the examples above, there was also the mid-season trade of Matt Garza, where two months of Garza landed Mike Olt — a top 50 hitting prospect — and three Grade B pitchers. Even if

We’re coming off a season where the Pirates made the playoffs, and because of that, they are going to be expected to make the playoffs next year. It would certainly help to have Liriano pitching the same way he did in 2013. And talking about trading for prospects isn’t usually the conversation you have when talking about contending the following season.

This is where the reclamation system comes into play. If the method the Pirates used to acquire Liriano is legit, then why would they ever keep a guy like Liriano when they could trade him for a big return and find the next Liriano? It’s the best of both worlds. And this isn’t like a lot of off-season trade ideas where people suggest that a team trades a player for a big return, then goes out to get someone just as good on the free agent market. Those ideas always raise the question: why can’t the trading team save their prospects and sign the free agent?

In this case it’s because the other teams don’t have those alternatives available. The Pirates have shown a tendency to be able to scout reclamation pitchers, have the pitching coaches adjust them, and have the stats department give them a boost. I don’t believe that’s a fluke, and if it is something that can be repeated, then the Pirates have more talented starting pitching options available than other teams. It’s true that a lot of these pitching options don’t look good on the surface, and come with assumed risk involved. But if the system continues to be effective, then there wouldn’t be much risk to worry about.

I could see how people wouldn’t like this idea. It would definitely be tempting to keep Liriano, hope he stays healthy and doesn’t have a down year in 2014, and hope that this once again leads the Pirates to the playoffs. After that he’s probably gone, and the Pirates are probably left with a compensation pick in 2015. That’s the safe route, and it doesn’t involve the risk of trading a pitcher coming off a great season and replacing him with a pitcher coming off a poor season with hopes that the new pitcher will do a 180. That’s a bigger risk if you don’t trust the Pirates system, and think that all of the examples from the last few years have been luck.

I don’t chalk Liriano, or anyone else, up to luck. These guys didn’t magically revive their careers with the Pirates. It was a combined effort from the scouting, the pitching coaches, and the stats department. I don’t know if the Pirates will actually consider this over the off-season. I actually don’t think they would do this. But it should be something for them to consider. There’s a very good chance that they could get a huge return for Liriano in a trade, then replace him with someone new who will be the next Liriano.

And if you’re looking for a way for the Pirates to sustain their success over the long-run, then there’s no better way than an effective buy low/sell high plan with starting pitchers, as that’s the most valued commodity in baseball.

Links and Notes

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Season Recap Index

The Latest Season Recaps

**2013 Bradenton Marauders Season Recap and Top 10 Prospects

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Center Field

**2013 Altoona Curve Season Recap and Top 10 Prospects

Today’s Articles

**Don’t Sleep on Joely Rodriguez as a Future Major League Pitcher

**Francisco Liriano Named Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year

**Winter League Recap: Double For Polanco, Tejeda Homers and Triples

**AFL Recap: Two Hits For Dickerson, RBI For Hanson In Win

If You Missed it Over the Weekend

**Gregory Polanco: “The Walking Toolshed”

**The Reds Intend to Trade Brandon Phillips This Off-Season

**Minor Moves: Pirates Trade Jimmy Rider to Red Sox

Weekend Winter League Recaps

**Winter League Recap: Gregory Polanco Homers Again

**AFL Recap: Big Day At The Plate For Alen Hanson

**Winter League Recap: Polanco Goes Deep in Season Opener

**AFL Recap: Three Shutout Innings for Irwin, Walk-Off Hit for Dickerson

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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