Back in January, longtime Major League Baseball columnist Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News wrote an unattributed, one-sentence item saying Francisco Liriano would not be ready to pitch until midseason.
One month later, shortly before Liriano’s belated arrival in Fort Myers, an unidentified Minnesota Twins official told the Star Tribune that Liriano had twice hit 97 mph in a bullpen session in the Dominican Republic, while consistently throwing between 92 and 95 mph.
By now, we know Ringolsby’s source was wrong, and the Twins official delusional. As it turns out, Ringolsby — a respected colleague going back more than a decade — might have been onto something.
Clearly, the left-handed Liriano has not progressed as well as the Twins would have hoped in his return from Tommy John-type elbow surgery, and a lot of it is Liriano’s fault. Liriano showed up to spring training nine days late because of unanticipated visa problems but 20 pounds heavier than expected. Despite the Twins party line, not all of that weight was muscle. Liriano still carries a slight paunch under his baggy jersey.
Gardenhire blames Liriano for being out of condition
In an interview in his office Sunday morning, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire for the first time said the Twins promoted Liriano not because he was ready, but because they couldn’t trust him to do his cardiovascular conditioning without the major-league staff watching him. Gardenhire made it clear he did not fault anyone in Fort Myers or Class AAA Rochester for this; he laid the blame squarely on Liriano for not policing himself.
Even worse, Liriano — who walked 10 in 9 2/3 innings over two starts since his recall — still hasn’t taken to the mechanical changes in his delivery the Twins insisted upon to lessen the strain on his repaired elbow. In bullpen sessions, he finishes balanced and square. But once the game starts, Liriano reverts to his old way, falling off the mound with his back facing the plate. And Sunday, after what Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson both called an encouraging side session, Liriano admitted he has little confidence in his fastball.
“Because I can’t throw a strike with it, I don’t want to throw it in a game,” said Liriano, whose next scheduled start is Thursday afternoon in Oakland. “I trust my fastball, but I’m not hitting my spots with it.”
At this point, the Twins have no choice but to be as patient and supportive of Liriano as they can, stressing positives while hoping Liriano eventually will throw more strikes. Gardenhire said strength coach Perry Castellano is pushing Liriano on his conditioning and that Liriano’s weight and body fat percentage are acceptable.
But Liriano has not been granted a lifetime pass. If his next three or four starts aren’t any better than his first two, Gardenhire said Liriano will go back to the minors.
“That will be a wakeup call,” Gardenhire said.
So how did it come to this?
According to Gardenhire, in the weeks leading up to spring training, Liriano did all his mound work and arm-strengthening drills at the Twins’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. But in Fort Myers, Liriano huffed and puffed through the most basic fielding drills, an unmistakable sign that he had blown off his conditioning. Given that, the Twins had to leave him in Florida when camp broke.
Twins want to oversee his workout routines
His two minor-league starts were unspectacular, but Gardenhire and the Twins felt they had to get Liriano back under their control. In effect, they rewarded him for laziness, which makes Gardenhire uncomfortable.
This isn’t the first time the Twins have been forced to baby-sit Liriano. In 2006, Liriano hid the extent of his elbow pain from Gardenhire and Anderson for several weeks before finally admitting to it during a start in Detroit. And when Liriano skipped a pregame treatment in the trainer’s room, Anderson yelled at him and made him go twice a day.
Sunday, Liriano insisted that his arm and his legs “are where I want them to be.” In the bullpen session, Anderson had Liriano slow his delivery, aim fastballs down the middle and let the ball’s natural darting movement work for him, instead of trying to pick corners.
“He needs to trust his fastball,” Anderson said.
And in return, Liriano needs to do his work and give the Twins a reason to trust him. His future as an effective major-league pitcher depends on it.