Twins management is now left to wonder if the juice was worth the squeeze. Or in this case, the strain, the soreness and the stiffness.
Starting pitcher Francisco Liriano's (elbow) left arm resembled that of a vindictive puppet master in 2006, controlling the postseason hopes of the Twins and fantasy teams nationwide. But after his marionette control broke down with his arm at the height of his dominance, Liriano will miss the entire 2007 season after undergoing successful Tommy John surgery Nov. 6.
The lefty phenom froze batters in their cleats for a short-lived but much-anticipated run in 2006, as an arsenal headlined by his backbreaking slider gave him a 12-3 mark in 16 starts. After quickly supplanting Scott Baker as the fifth starter on a playoff-caliber Twins squad, he dazzled with a 2.16 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, 144 strikeouts and 32 walks in 121 innings pitched on his way to being named as an All-Star Game replacement.
Table: Liriano's 2006 Three-Month Dominance
Liriano felt soreness in his pitching elbow after his July 28 start and missed his next scheduled outing. He took his next turn, but he experienced more soreness, this time in his left forearm. The team was at first certain that the injury had nothing to do with his elbow. An MRI revealed a mild chronic strain of the ulnar collateral ligament, though.
After spending more than a month on the DL, he returned Sept. 13, only to leave that game in the third inning after keeling over in pain after a pitch; it was announced that he would miss the rest of the season later that evening. Many say the Twins rushed Liriano back in order to fight for a playoff spot, jeopardizing his long-term future as a result.
Either way, the Twins have had their plans soured for 2007, as Liriano's season-long absence coupled with the retirement of starter Brad Radke has left the Twins with two gaping rotation holes behind ace Johan Santana. While the Twins' offense has emerged in the past year with the rise of both first baseman Justin Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer, pitching has recently been Minnesota's strength.
Minnesota hasn't made noise in the arms race, since bidding in a market flooded with bloated contracts for mediocre arms would go against the Twins' economic philosophy. Unless they have something going under the radar, the Twins will likely fill in their spots internally. They have already picked up starting pitcher Carlos Silva's option despite his disappointing 2006 campaign.
The Twins will also be relying heavily on their youngsters. Baker and starter Boof Bonser will have increased fantasy value merely on the basis of more innings pitched. Like last season, highly touted prospect Matt Garza is likely to take over Liriano's slot in the rotation, and will be expected to improve on the control problems he suffered in limited work last season.
Of all the back-end staff options, Bonser has the most immediate upside after demonstrating an ability to control the strike zone in his limited time last season. Silva slipped after posting two consecutive solid seasons. Baker fell short of expectations last year. Garza would be the best keeper league option if available, although the Twins also brought him up long before his expected 2008 call-up. If they want to go down a fresh road, they could showcase prospect Glen Perkins, who had decent numbers at Double-A New Britain despite posting a 4-11 record (117.1 IP, 3.91 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 131 Ks and 45 BBs in 23 starts).
Table: Returning Twins Rotation Options (2006 Stats)
For those who don't know what to expect from a starter who receives Tommy John surgery, recent ulnar collateral ligament repairs offer no clear pattern. Current Toronto Blue Jays starter A.J. Burnett missed the 2003 season with his surgery. He has compiled a 29-26 record and several more trips to the DL since the procedure. Philadelphia Phillies starter Jon Lieber, on the other hand, showed the New York Yankees positive results after missing most of 2002 and all of 2003 rehabbing, tying for the team lead with 14 wins while becoming their second-half ace in 2004. Of course, Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood is still struggling to stay healthy after going under the knife in 1999, and has had seemingly as many DL stints as he has had wins. After signing him to a one-year deal, the team may permanently move him to the bullpen.
Liriano's aggravation of his minor league arm problems now leaves fantasy players in limbo. Closer Joe Nathan could miss those five or 10 extra saves he might notch with a healthy Liriano.
For single-season leagues, lower-half or snake pick managers will have to find other pitching options come draft day. If healthy, Liriano might have joined Santana in warranting first-round consideration. This almost guarantees that other aces such as the St. Louis Cardinals' Chris Carpenter, the Arizona Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb, the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano or the Houston Astros' Roy Oswalt will move up draft boards, so plan accordingly.
Keeper leaguers shouldn't worry…yet. It could be productive for Liriano, 23, to heal before he reaches his prime. Pulling the trigger on a fantasy trade might be jumping the gun, because you aren't likely to get fair value; it would most certainly have to be a lopsided offer that favors Liriano's owner. Stash him on reserve, and claim or trade for a fill-in starter.
He's worth the wait, but the only guarantee for this situation next season is that Liriano's rehab updates will outdraw Twins games in the Nielsen ratings.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.
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