Would Yanks really pursue risky Liriano?

ould yankees pursue minnesota twins pitcher francisco liriano

There is only one logical reason for the Twins to trade left-hander Francisco Liriano: fear that he might injure his arm.

Your average suitor, deducing as much, likely would proceed with caution.

The Yankees are not your average suitor.

No, the Yankees are a big-money team desperate for starting pitching, a team that would be willing to take the perceived risk with Liriano for the right acquisition cost.

That cost, of course, is subject to debate.

The Yankees at one point this offseason dangled right-hander Ivan Nova and infielder Ramiro Pena for Liriano, according to a major league source. The Twins, however, want prized left-hander Manny Banuelos as part of any package, the source says. Though just 20, Banuelos is expected to open the season at Double A.

The teams have not spoken in at least a month, according to a second source. But given the Yankees’ needs, the discussions are almost certain to revive before Opening Day.

At the moment, the Yankees are extremely reluctant to move Banuelos or their other top pitching prospect, righty Dellin Betances. Such restraint served them well in the 2007-08 offseason when they would not send righty Phil Hughes to Minnesota in a package for lefty Johan Santana. But last summer, the Yankees were perhaps too cautious in their attempt to acquire lefty Cliff Lee from the Mariners, refusing to part with Nova or infielder Eduardo Nunez along with catcher Jesus Montero.

Liriano, 27, is not Lee. But in some ways he was even better last season, and certainly was the closest thing the Twins had to an ace.

While Liriano finished only 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA, those stats could have been even more impressive considering the strength of his peripheral numbers.

Liriano had the second-best strikeout rate in the AL, third-best groundball percentage and lowest home-run rate. But he suffered from poor luck: Opponents batted .337 on balls in play, the second-highest average in the league after James Shields.

Why, then, is he even available?

Well, Liriano has yet to throw 200 innings in a season; he underwent Tommy John surgery on Nov. 6, 2006, and missed all of ’07. He worked a career-high 191-2/3 innings last season, but he had a 4.69 ERA in his last 10 starts and blew a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Yankees.

Maybe Liriano wore down because of his increased workload. But rival scouts say his delivery always will trigger health concerns, and perhaps prevent him from ever developing into a workhorse.

Again, that would be the only reason to trade him.

True, Liriano is only two seasons away from free agency, but his salary in 2011 will be a relatively modest $4.3 million. The Twins could afford to keep him through ’12 and beyond.

Yet according to a source, the Twins did not engage in serious long-term discussions with Liriano before settling with him in arbitration. Liriano’s health might have factored into the team’s approach; the Twins, if they were concerned that Liriano might break down, would have been reluctant to extend his contract.

Otherwise, an extension makes perfect sense.

The Twins aren’t rebuilding like the Royals, who traded righty Zack Greinke at his request this offseason, or fretting over every dollar like the Rays, who also traded a top starting pitcher, righty Matt Garza. No, the Twins have won the AL Central the past two seasons and six of the past nine. Their payroll since opening Target Field has soared past $100 million.

What’s more, the Twins understand the potential downside of moving a top starter. They got back little for Santana, who they sent to the Mets with one year left on his contract, and failed to make the playoffs that season.

If Liriano is healthy, trading him almost certainly would make the Twins less competitive short-term, perhaps even cost them the 2011 AL Central title. It definitely would not enhance their chances of ending their postseason hex against the Yankees anytime soon.

You can almost see it coming: Liriano goes to New York, gains fellow lefty CC Sabathia as a mentor and becomes an even greater force, sticking it to the Twins in the postseason.

Heck, Liriano might make such a leap even without Sabathia: The preseason guide, Baseball Prospectus 2011, says his “combination of grounders and a high strikeout rate makes him a strong pick for a further breakout this year.”

Assuming, of course, good health.

Liriano was scratched from his first throwing session of the spring because of tightness in his shoulder, and confirmed to pitching coach Rick Anderson that he did not keep up with his strengthening exercises in the offseason. However, that setback is expected to be minor; Liriano is making “great progress,” Twins general manager Bill Smith said Tuesday.

The Twins could rationalize trading Liriano by saying they were confident in their five other starters: right-handers Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey and lefty Brian Duensing.

Nova, if included in the deal, would give the Twins a potential sixth starter. Banuelos would give them a left-handed complement to their two most recent No. 1 draft picks, right-handers Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers.

Too high a price? Perhaps. But the Brewers traded their No. 1 pitching prospect, right-hander Jake Odorizzi, for Grienke, and the Cubs traded their No. 1, righty Chris Archer, for Garza. Banuelos might be better than both; that’s in the eye of the beholder. But the Yankees at least would need to consider the idea.

They are deep enough in young pitching to obtain Liriano, desperate enough to assume the risk.

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