By Jason Shetler
The Pirates brought back a familiar face to the organization on Monday, as the club agreed to terms with Francisco Liriano on a minor league contract, which does include incentives. Liriano is the second left-handed pitcher to join the Pirates on a minor league deal this offseason, the other being Tyler Lyons on New Year’s Day.
Liriano first arrived to Pittsburgh prior to the 2013 season on a guaranteed contract for one year, plus a club option. After some injury riddled seasons, he pitched very well in 2013 and was named National League Comeback Player of the Year. Following the 2014 season, the Pirates were able to re-sign Liriano for three years at $39 million.
2016 became a struggle for Liriano. During the trade deadline that year, the Pirates dealt the veteran lefty to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Drew Hutchison. Ownership would really come into question with this deal, as the Bucs traded away a pair of prospects in catcher Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez in an effort to get the Jays to take on Liriano’s remaining money. Despite a subpar 2016 campaign, Liriano still performed solidly during his first time around in Pittsburgh, posting a 3.67 ERA and a 3.61 FIP in a total of 107 starts. He also had a K/9 of 9.5, which is the best figure of any Pirates starter to pitch at least three seasons for them.
Last offseason, the Detroit Tigers inked Liriano to a one-year deal worth $4 million to be a veteran presence in their rotation. He appeared in 27 games, making 26 starts, and had a 4.58 ERA, along with a FIP of 5.11 and a career low 7.4 K/9.
During the Winter Meetings this offseason, the Pirates traded Ivan Nova to the Chicago White Sox, while then signing Jordan Lyles to a one-year deal for $2 million shortly after. General Manager Neal Huntington said that Lyles has the “inside track” to be the fifth starter in the rotation, but also mentioned that they would consider using The Opener in that spot, a concept made famous by the Tampa Bay Rays a year ago.
Although Liriano had his struggles last season with Detroit, there were a couple of positive takeaways. One was looking good against opposing hitters first time through the lineup, as he held them to a .635 OPS. The other was continuing to dominate left-handed batters, holding them to an OPS of .516. If the Pirates decide to flirt with the idea of The Opener, as opposed to a traditional fifth starter, Liriano would certainly be a perfect candidate for that role. Letting him just pitch the first and second innings of games would not only be ideal, given his numbers first time facing a lineup, but also allows him to stay fresh and not have to log too many innings in the process.