Blue Jays hope Martin can help Liriano regain his old form

Barry Davis and Shi Davidi break down the Blue Jays trade deadline, bringing in 3 arms and not get rid of any top prospects, also in acquiring Francisco Liriano, they have their rotation already set for 2017.

HOUSTON – Russell Martin pauses when asked for his assessment of Francisco Liriano the pitcher and begins his endorsement of the left-hander in another way.

“First off, he’s one of my favourite teammates of all-time, just because he’s down-to-earth, easy guy to get along with, good teammate and on the mound he’s a horse,” says the Toronto Blue Jays catcher. “He wants to compete and every big game that I remember he was in pitching he pitched well.

“I feel like he likes being in the situation where a team is contending and I think a change of scenery might just help him out because he has a great track record over the years when he’s healthy, he’s tremendous.”

Martin caught him during the 2013 and ’14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and no catcher with a meaningful sample size of work has had more success with the veteran of 11 big-league seasons. In 33 games throwing to Martin, Liriano posted a 2.92 ERA and .215 batting-average against over 200.2 innings with 204 strikeouts to 81 walks.

The Blue Jays considered that relationship when acquiring Liriano on Monday, hoping reuniting the two will help the 32-year-old Dominican regain his past form.

“Francisco will benefit from a veteran catcher,” says GM Ross Atkins. “In Pittsburgh, with [Francisco] Cervelli down this year, that potentially hurt him. Nothing against who was catching him, it’s just experience.

“The experience of Russ and the familiarity, if we come up with a plan we should expect some correction. This is not on Russ Martin by any means, but we did see that as an added benefit.”

Martin hasn’t seen any of Liriano’s starts this season, so he’s not sure what’s behind the frightful 5.46 ERA and 1.619 WHIP, both well above his career norms. Also up significantly are his homers-per-nine-innings rate to 1.5 from an average of 0.9, and his walks-per-nine, to 5.5 from 3.9, and both are surely factors.

Liriano’s velocity is virtually unchanged from his strong 2013 and ’14 seasons with the Pirates, but the batting-average against on his sinker (.320), changeup (.310), slider (.148) and sparingly-used four-seamer (.438) are all up from last year, according to data on Brooks Baseball.

“He’s a guy that has three plus pitches,” said Martin. “His fastball, I don’t know how hard he’s throwing right now but when I caught him he was still throwing hard, and he’s got a plus slider and a plus changeup. So he has three pitches he can strike guys out with and he can throw his breaking stuff at any time.

“That’s what makes him tough, he can pitch backwards and still have heater in the back of guys’ minds. That’s what you want guys to feel, that they don’t know what to expect in any count.”

Josh Donaldson, 0-for-5 with two walks in seven career plate appearances against Liriano, agrees with that sentiment.

“Hey, he’s had some really nice years,” said Donaldson. “I know I’ve had some at-bats off him that weren’t very good. We’re going to need him to come in here and pitch well. That goes for anybody in here, we expect whoever puts on a Blue Jays uniform to come out here, give our team a chance to win and get their job done and play well.”

Over the previous three seasons, Liriano has posted ERAs of 3.02, 3.38 and 3.38. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a stat that aims to isolate only the elements under a pitcher’s control, were very similar at 2.92, 3.59 and 3.19, indicating he was full value for those ERAs.

This year his FIP is 5.27, suggesting his 5.46 ERA is deserved, too. But the Blue Jays had some success this year in rejuvenating underperforming relievers Jason Grilli and, in a very small sample size, Joaquin Benoit, so they’re certain to have some clear ideas for Liriano.

“He’s got a big arm,” said manager John Gibbons. “One thing I think really is going to help him is being reunited with Russell Martin. He had him when he was at his best in Pittsburgh, that’s always big. But he’s always been one of the most dominating guys out there.”

The Blue Jays are expecting him to be that guy again.

“I feel like we’ve gotten better which I felt was going to be hard to do,” said Martin. “I like our team. The organization has done a good job, now it’s up to us. Even if we didn’t acquire anybody I still liked where we were at as a team, but now I feel like we’re deeper, we’re stronger.

“Now I’m just excited about the opportunity.”

MONEY MATTERS: The Blue Jays’ payroll is up to roughly $150 million this season following the deadline additions of Liriano, still due about $4.5 million this season, and Scott Feldman, who has about $2.6 million remaining this year.

They also ate Jesse Chavez’s $4 million (who was sent to the Dodgers for Mike Bolsinger) and Franklin Morales’ $2 million (who was designated for assignment), after previously taking on $5 million for Melvin Upton Jr., about $2.75 million of which hits the book next year.

With Upton ($2.25 million) and Liriano ($13.67 million) also under control next year, the Blue Jays now have $104.5 million guaranteed to eight players for 2017. Grilli also has a $3-million option that’s a slam dunk.

Their pending free agents include: Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, R.A. Dickey, Brett Cecil, Benoit, Feldman and Gavin Floyd.

FELDMAN FLIP: The bullpen is not an entirely new gig for Feldman and he’s had success since the Houston Astros transitioned him from the rotation earlier this season, logging a 2.65 ERA over 37.1 innings in 22 games with a WHIP of 1.045.

So even though he’s not being used in the role he expected when the Astros signed him to a $30-million, three-year deal before the 2014 season, he’s managed to make the best of it.

“It’s one of those things where I could try not to get too down about it,” he said. “I signed here in Houston with the intentions of starting but they had some other plans and I went to the bullpen and just tried to make the most of it. There are some good people down in the ‘pen that I was hanging out with every day, trying to pass the time that way and help the team any way that we could.”

The Blue Jays sent rookie-ball righty Lupe Chavez to the Astros for Feldman. The 18-year-old is 4-1 with a 1.69 ERA in six starts with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays.

“Young Mexican pitcher who has done well but a young pitcher, long way to go,” Astros GM Jeff Luhnow told Houston media. “But we’re excited about him. Our scouting reports on him were very positive. Certainly he has a good track record in his young career.”

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