Kenny Williams is not doing things just to do them. At no point following Zack Greinke going to the Angels, despite the Sox best efforts to acquire him, were the words, “I’m just going to trade for any old starting pitcher then,” heard in any White Sox offices. We can be confident that there is a plan with Francisco Liriano, but you definitely have to take the time to ponder what exactly that plan is.
Liriano is owed a little over $2M on the year, and all due respect to Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez, the White Sox didn’t have to give up much to acquire him. Let’s assume for a minute, that we are getting the exact same Francisco Liriano that’s been pitching in Target Field the last couple of years. In his last 11 starts, 8 have been of the “quality” variety, meaning he has gone 6+ innings while allowing 3 runs or less. He strikes out more than a batter an inning (3rd best K/9 in the AL for pitchers with 100+ innings) and has a tendency to issue free passes (2nd worst BB/9 in the AL, 100+ inning min.). The image most fresh in the minds of Sox fans would be his last start, which so happened to take place in U.S. Cellular Field and didn’t last very long. He went 2.2 innings and the Sox tagged him for 7 runs. And that’s a problem. Liriano has not been pitching most of his games in the Cell, he’s been pitching in a universally acknowledged pitching friendly ballpark in Minneapolis. His home ERA is about a run and a half lower than what he’s holding on the road and he’s given up fewer homeruns at Target Field despite pitching many more innings there than on the road.
There is more to the switch than just the distances of the walls. Liriano will now be trying to get the most out of his stuff under the tutelage of Don Cooper. Cooper has a positive track record in taking talented pitchers who have trouble reigning in their “stuff”. As far as the White Sox attaining a pitcher mid-season that is trying to live up to his talent, the move reminds me a bit of the 2004 trade that brought Jose Contreras to the Southside. Contreras continued to struggle with his control for the rest of the year with the Sox, but his home run rate dropped considerably as it was widely believed that he was tipping his pitches prior to his arrival. A problem that was remedied in short order. In another year that trade turned to gold, but we’re not here to worry about the 2013 White Sox, for now let’s focus on the 2012 impact of Francisco Liriano. There is a good chance that Cooper has seen something in Liriano that he felt could be fixed, and quickly. “Sure, KW, I see it and I think I can do something about it.” Just a few simple words from Coop to Williams would be enough to provide Kenny with the confidence to make a move.
Looking at the trade from a WAR perspective, Liriano has been worth a surprising 1.1 fWAR so far this season for the Twins. Compare that with the fWAR totals to this point for Gavin Floyd (1.0), and Philip Humber (0.1) and we’re already looking at an improvement. He’s not likely here as a straight replacement though. He’s the new guy and will have to enter the regular rotation by either proving himself in quality spot starts, stellar relief opportunities or just by injuries to existing starters (most likely scenario, unfortunately). Did the Sox acquire him to be the swing man? I believe that’s an asterisked yes. He will likely become the new swing man, but with a bit more work than your typical bullpen long man. Liriano can make the occasional 6th start to stretch the rest days for guys like Sale and Peavy, he can of course be available for mop-up when it’s clear the bullpen is going to have a particularly taxing day and even come in to pitch when Sale carries a big lead early in games (I’m talking 5th inning) if the Sox are truly serious about limiting the young lefty’s innings. He’ll be a swing man with an extra workload. A fifth and a half starter.
It may take awhile to get there, but this is a high quality trade for the White Sox. Liriano is a valuable pitcher and has the potential to be even more so. There is no science behind “change of scenery” but if you couple that possibility with the magic of Don Cooper, the acquisition could be a huge boon to the White Sox playoff chances. Once in the playoffs, it’s pitchers like Liriano that flash dominant stuff who can come up huge in key October situations.