Twins Notes: Liriano’s back, plus a closer-by-committee approach, timetables and risky girlfriends

Francisco Liriano made his final spring start Tuesday afternoon, tossing six shutout innings versus the Pirates, and afterward the 26-year-old southpaw revealed that he’s been promised the final rotation spot, despite the Twins holding off an official announcement for now. Liriano created many doubts by going 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 137 innings last year, but turned heads by dominating the Dominican Winter League and kept rolling with a great spring training.

Tuesday’s eight-strikeout, three-hit outing against the Pirates leaves Liriano with a 2.70 ERA this spring and his 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings is incredibly promising. Better yet, reviews of his raw stuff have been equally positive and he appears to have regained some of the velocity lost following Tommy John surgery in late 2006. Combined between winter ball and spring training, Liriano racked up 97 strikeouts with just 12 walks in 68.2 innings.

That dominance came against inconsistent, often mediocre levels of competition, and even with some of his velocity returning, Liriano isn’t the unhittable phenom who overpowered the league with a mid-90s fastball, parachute changeup, and high-80s slider of death in 2006. However, his confidence has seemingly returned, he’s throwing strikes with a far livelier fastball than we saw last season, and his slider/changeup combo still misses tons of bats.

The jaw-dropping revelation of an ace from 2006 isn’t coming back, but if Liriano stays healthy and continues to pitch like he has during the past few months, he’ll make for one hell of a fifth starter and could even be capable of re-emerging as a front-of-the-rotation option. Obviously the real test will begin April 9 against Chicago, but in the meantime I’ve gone from skeptical to cautiously optimistic about Liriano’s progress, and it’s great to see him thriving again.

Ron Gardenhire announced that the Twins will begin the year using a closer-by-committee approach with Joe Nathan out for the season following Tommy John elbow surgery:

We are a committee. Our closer role is a committee. We’re going to try just about anything. I’ve never had to do it. It’s going to be an experience trying to mix and match as best we can. But I’ve got some capable arms that we’re going to rely on. I’ve seen committees work. It’s not always the easiest thing in the world, but you just have to ad lib. When you lose your closer, it’s a little different. That’s how we’re going to start, and we’ll go from there.

Aside from steroids, there’s nothing the baseball media freaks out about more than a team without a so-called established closer, so expect plenty of logic-be-damned overreactions if the Twins blow a couple of leads early on. In fact, expect some of those reactions right now. However, the odds of Gardenhire and the Twins sticking with a true committee approach to the ninth inning all year are very slim.

Gardenhire has said multiple times that he wants to find one man for the job, so mixing and matching Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain and perhaps Pat Neshek early in the season will likely just be a way for him to determine the best fit for the role. I’d be surprised if a committee approach lasts longer than three to four weeks and, assuming the Twins don’t trade for a veteran closer, would still bet on Rauch leading the team in saves.

Ron Gardenhire
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Ron Gardenhire

In the meantime, we’re bound to hear how monumentally insane the Twins supposedly are for treating the ninth inning just like the seventh and eighth innings, which shows just how wrapped up everyone is in a role built around the save statistic. I don’t think Gardenhire will go with a true closer-by-committee approach for long, if at all, but the Twins will be just fine if he does. Baseball existed without a one-inning closer for a hundred years or so.

Nathan officially underwent surgery Friday, with Mets team doctor David Altcheck doing the honors in New York. Nathan has remained very upbeat publicly while expressing confidence that he’ll be ready for Opening Day next season, but those are longer odds than he may be willing to admit. Neshek is 16 months removed from his Tommy John surgery, so I asked him whether coming back in 12 months would have been possible in his case:

For me, at 12 months there was no way I was ready to face hitters at that time. I don’t know how guys come back quicker than that because it honestly was painful at that stage. Lots of scar tissue that would break up. I think they wrote my program to go slower, so everything I did was set back a couple months, whereas a normal guy is around 12.

Plenty of pitchers have returned from the surgery within 12 months and been effective, but I’d be very surprised if Nathan is able to do so at age 35. Incidentally, if you weren’t already a huge Neshek fan, his answering my questions about elbow surgery via Twitter at midnight on a Tuesday should make you one.

After shopping around for a better deal all offseason, Ron Mahay finally settled for re-joining the Twins on a minor-league contract last week. Mahay originally signed with the Twins in late August of last season after being released by the Royals, but pitched just nine innings down the stretch. Much like Jacque Jones, he’s apparently willing to accept an assignment to Triple-A, which makes Mahay a nice low-cost pickup as a potential lefty middle reliever.

Along with Mahay, the Twins also signed 29-year-old Yoslan Herrera and 30-year-old Brad Hennessey to minor-league deals. Hennessey spent five years with Giants and even served as their closer for much of 2007, saving 19 games with a 3.42 ERA in 68 innings. He was let go after coughing up 35 runs in 40 innings in 2008 and then spent last season sidelined by elbow problems after agreeing to a minor-league contract with the Orioles.

Herrera received a $2 million signing bonus from the Pirates after defecting from Cuba as a 25-year-old in 2006 but has been mediocre in the minors and allowed 20 runs over 18.1 innings during his only major-league stint in 2008. They both seem destined for spots in the Rochester bullpen and are solid organizational depth, but Mahay is significantly more likely to see time in Minnesota this season.

LaVelle E. Neal III recently profiled 17-year-old top prospects Miguel Angel Sano and Max Kepler. The whole thing is worth reading, but my favorite part was this quote from Kepler:

I can’t wait until I get my driver’s license because I have to look for people who are 21 to get into my car and just go somewhere. I was thinking about getting a girlfriend who was 21, but that’s kind of risky.

I initially imagined that quote being said in a thick German accent, but then hearing Kepler’s nearly flawless English during a radio interview with Patrick Reusse ruined the fun.

Despite extraordinary minor-league numbers, Anthony Slama didn’t reach Triple-A until just before his 26th birthday last year, and I’ve criticized the Twins for not promoting him more aggressively. However, while the front office may not have much confidence in Slama being for real, both Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson indicated they were impressed by the right-hander who ranked 19th on my annual list of the Twins’ top prospects.

Acquired from the Mets in the package for Johan Santana and traded to the Diamondbacks for Rauch in August, Kevin Mulvey is now competing for the final spot in Arizona’s rotation. Meanwhile, a groin injury is hurting Boof Bonser‘s bid for a bullpen job in Boston.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that the Yankees “made a series of attempts” to trade for Denard Span last season “only to be rebuffed each time by the Twins.”

Remember the lone voter who kept Joe Mauer from being a unanimous MVP? Well, suffice it to say you won’t be satisfied by his reasoning.

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