His acquisition completed a busy Monday that saw the Blue Jays add prospects in addition to right-handers Scott Feldman and Mike Bolsinger.
In Liriano, the Blue Jays are getting a veteran starting pitcher with a track record of success at the big-league level, accompanied by several years of inconsistency.
Here’s everything you need to know about Liriano:
Name: Francisco Liriano
Position: Starting pitcher
Height: 6-foot-2 | Weight: 225 lbs.
Contract status: Will become free agent after 2017 season
What does he provide?
Liriano brings a serviceable arm with 11 years of MLB experience to the Blue Jays pitching staff. However, he’s currently enduring a rough 2016 that’s seen him post an ugly 6-11 record with a 5.46 ERA.
A lack of command seems to be the biggest concern for Liriano this season as his 69 walks are the most in baseball. His stats also rank among the worst in the National League in several categories, including WHIP (1.62, last), ERA (5.46 ERA, second last), opponents’ OPS (.814, fifth last) and home runs (19, seventh last).
Those numbers represent a sharp reversal from the success Liriano enjoyed over the last several seasons in Pittsburgh. From 2013 to 2015 he was excellent, with perhaps the best year of his career coming last year when he went 12-7 with a 3.38 ERA, striking out 205 hitters in 186.2 innings.
The 32-year-old relies mostly on a sinker and slider and the velocity of those pitches this year remain in line with what they were in 2014 and 2015, according to Brooks Baseball. (His sinker has averaged 93.27 mph this year; his slider 86.02 mph.) The unchanged velocity only adds to the puzzle that Liriano has presented on the mound this season.
According to Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, batters have become more patient this season against Liriano than in years past, laying off more of his pitches. That’s significant, Sawchik reports, because since 2013 no starter has thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone than the left-hander.
“I think part of it was they weren’t hitting him from the time he’s been here, so they are trying something different: ‘Let’s take until we get a strike,’” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said recently. “There’s been a counter-punch.”
Sure, Liriano is struggling this season, but he’s no stranger to comebacks, having resurrected his career on two separate occasions. He enjoyed much success after breaking into the majors with the Minnesota Twins in 2005 before missing the entire 2007 campaign after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
However, he returned to his prior form in 2010, earning the American League Comeback Player of the Year award. His struggles returned in 2011 and 2012, but he managed to right the ship yet again in 2013, nabbing NL comeback player honours with the Pirates.
Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin is very familiar with Liriano, having caught the Dominican in 2013 and 2014 when they were teammates in Pittsburgh.
In 33 career games with Martin behind the plate, Liriano sports a 2.92 ERA and 1.19 WHIP over 200.2 innings, walking 81 and striking out 204.
Arguably their most important moment as a battery came in the 2013 NL Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Reds. Liriano allowed just one run on four hits over seven strong innings, earning the victory that pushed the Pirates into the NL Division Series.
Here’s a fun piece of trivia from that wild card affair: right-hander Jason Grilli, who’s now with the Blue Jays, pitched the ninth inning for Pittsburgh in the 6-2 win, while Martin hit two homers.
Talking big money
The Blue Jays will be on the hook for all of Liriano’s salary. He’s in the middle of a three-year, $39 million deal, meaning the Blue Jays owe him the remainder of the $13.667 million he’s due this year, plus another $13.667 million next season.
Liriano was the Pirates’ highest-paid player this season, so ridding themselves of that commitment is significant for the financially restricted club. It likely explains why Pittsburgh also surrendered two of their top 10 prospects — catcher Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez — in Monday’s deal for right-hander Drew Hutchison.
Will he start?
It’s not exactly clear where Liriano will slot into the Blue Jays pitching staff at the moment, but general manager Ross Atkins confirmed to reporters on Monday that Aaron Sanchez will in fact be transitioned to the bullpen this season.
Liriano figures to replace the young right-hander who’s in the middle of a Cy Young-calibre season while establishing a new career high in innings pitched. Liriano would join J.A. Happ as the second southpaw in Toronto’s rotation. When/if he finally does start a game for the Blue Jays, he’ll be the first Dominican pitcher to do so for the team since Esmil Rogers in 2013.