MINNEAPOLIS — The inevitable came Saturday night, just hours after recent Twins call-up Samuel Deduno’s seven-inning, two-hit night.
It came as the Twins have gained more and more confidence in their young pitchers over recent weeks, but that didn’t make it any more of a decision the team wanted to make.
It came as the Twins strung together two nights with double-digit runs. They slipped out of last place for the first time since April, but no matter how much less palatable a trade to a division rival might have seemed after those two games, it still made sense.
That’s the thing about the Twins dealing Francisco Liriano to the White Sox: not only was it a foregone conclusion, but it also seemed to be the right decision.
Liriano, who will be a free agent after this season, was making $5.5 million this year. He has a 3-10 record, which the Twins managed to parlay into a something of a positive due to his success the past two months, and the team sits 13 games out of first place as August looms. The Twins are in sell mode for the first time in years, and general manager Terry Ryan said he was fortunate enough to field offers for Liriano from a good portion of about 20 teams that still consider themselves contenders. And though dealing Liriano requires the requisite mourning of a good teammate, his inconsistency makes the trade that much easier to swallow.
Talking to players and coaches Sunday morning, it was impossible to avoid the emotions of losing a player who has been a mainstay in the Twins’ clubhouse for seven seasons. Justin Morneau, who has played with Liriano since the pitcher debuted, said that in situations like this, when business breaks up friends, it’s easy to forget the bad and remember only the good. Regardless, though, the Twins’ clubhouse without Liriano will be lacking one of its most standup players.
“That’s the toughest thing,” pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “We love Frankie. He works hard. No problems (with) the way he goes about his trade. We love him. You wish him the best. As a person, as a friend, as a teammate, we’re going to miss him.”
Like Morneau predicted, the high points are looming larger in the immediate aftermath of the trade. The Twins’ slugger said that with Liriano’s departure, he’s reminded of the player he watched in 2006, the dominant AL Rookie of the Year who went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA. That version of Liriano, the pitcher at his best, was as good as anybody in baseball.
“For that stretch when he was healthy, when he was pitching he was the best that I’ve seen personally,” Morneau said. “It was something special and something we’ll remember.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire agreed, citing Liriano’s 2011 no-hitter and his 15-strikeout outing on July 13. But increasingly with Liriano, the success came more in flashy glimpses than sustained success, and just more than 12 hours after the trade it’s already easier to see and vocalize his inconsistency and the havoc it wreaked on both Liriano and his team.
Anderson admitted that with Liriano the team was “always hoping,” crossing its fingers that successful bullpen sessions would translate into consistent games. Sometimes, coaches would bring catcher Joe Mauer to the bullpen for Liriano’s throwing sessions to see what he noticed. No matter how much the pitcher was struggling in pressure situations, Mauer would be impressed; he’d say that if Liriano could bring that kind of pitching into games, he could be successful.
But somehow, it never quite translated.
“See all this gray hair?” Anderson asked, jokingly blaming it on Liriano. “It’s frustrating. Not for me; you want the kid to do well. If the kid does well, then we do well … So it got frustrating, but I know he was more frustrated than we were.”
When many of the highlights are years old and the struggles are so fresh, trades like this one become easier. Liriano leaving still overshadows what the Twins received — two prospects, Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez — and that’s how it should be for a player who was such an integral part of a team for so long.
But soon, the Twins will have to move on. Liriano likely will start for the White Sox on Monday, when they face the Twins at Target Field, so a shift in perspective needs to happen — now. The trade deadline still looms Tuesday, and with the Twins’ current record, more moves wouldn’t be a stretch.
“This is something that happened that is a process,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve put our general manager in this situation because of our performance. Terry has to do what he has to do to right this organization and bring more talent to it. He’s been in a situation where he’s kind of stepped in here and because of our play and lack of it has put him in this situation. So he’s trying to do what’s right and get us back on the right track.”
Ryan would not give the details of where the Twins stand in terms of further moves, but he acknowledged that the team might not be finished if a proposed move makes sense.
With Liriano gone, the Twins moved Brian Duensing into the starting rotation Sunday for the second time in 2012, this time for a spot start. They also promoted pitcher Jeff Manship from Triple A after placing P.J. Walters on the 60-day disabled list.
Going forward, the team will have to lean more heavily on the young pitchers it has promoted from Triple A this year. It’s not a perfect plan, but for a team with some surprising young starters and that has driven itself far from contention, it’s the most logical option.
Despite his stint in the bullpen, Liriano had still started more games, 17, than any other Twins pitcher because of the injuries and promotions within the starting lineup. However, the five-man rotation that the Twins began the season with went a combined 11-25 through Saturday, while Scott Diamond, Cole De Vries, Deduno and Walters have a combined 15-8 mark.
No matter how good those pitchers have been, going forward the focus will be more on their development into consistent starters than anything else. The shutouts and efficient outings are perks, but these players are still proving themselves. They can be the Twins’ future, and with the Liriano trade, the focus on that future is intensifying a few months early.