Francisco Liriano is a polarizing player who is only two years removed from a season in which he was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Yet, he clearly has not been that player during over the last few years.
The reason to be leery of this signing is pretty evident; Liriano has demonstrated very poor control during each of the last two seasons, walking more than five batters per nine innings in 2011. Liriano also has been homer-prone of late and has struggled with runners on base.
$14 million over two years is a decent risk for a team in the Pirates' financial position to take. Yet, this is absolutely a gamble worth taking for the Bucs.
The Pirates do not have many ordinary means of acquiring elite players in free agency, as their budget does not allow Neal Huntington to spend upwards of $15 million a year on one player. The only way for the Bucs to come out of free agency with an elite player is to guess correctly on someone with elite potential, who also comes with questions attached.
Liriano, who struck out more than a batter an inning in his disappointing 2011 season, is exactly that kind of player.
Liriano has always had the pedigree of a potential ace, and he was exactly that in 2010 when he was worth six wins above replacement.
It is obviously unreasonable to expect Liriano to revert to this high level of production, but the talent and strikeout ability make him the right pitcher to take a chance on. Even if he only slightly outperforms his 2011 season, Liriano can be a league-average pitcher (with subpar walk rates mitigated by the strikeouts) and well worth the money the Pirates are paying him.
There are reasons to expect improvement from Liriano.
He is moving to a park that favors left-handed pitchers, particularly when it comes to home run prevention, and he will have a better defense behind him than he has in recent years. Liriano should also benefit from moving to the National League.
The Pirates have had very recent success with this "reclamation projection" strategy, as A.J. Burnett put together a much better year in Pittsburgh than he had in recent seasons with the New York Yankees. This approach clearly will not always work, but if the Bucs pick their spots there's no reason not to take another chance.
The Pittsburgh rotation suddenly has a pretty high ceiling, with Burnett, Liriano and James McDonald all capable of stellar outings, and top prospect Gerrit Cole likely to join the club in the middle of the season.
There is a large gap between that ceiling and the floor, especially given the variability of many above the pitchers' performances. But the Pirates need to substantially exceed individual projections in order to have the kind of season they want to have, so they are right to invest in this kind of variability.
The Pirates have rightfully indicated that they will not be satisfied with mediocrity.
Their actions are backing up their statements, as they have shown an exciting penchant to seek high-impact talent during the last year.