An Appreciation Of Ex-Twins Phenom Francisco Liriano … And What Was After What Could Have Been

The retirement tours filled with pomp, circumstance and gifts to be stored in one of the mansion’s many guest rooms are for a select few, while only a slightly larger percentage of players get to take one more at-bat or make one more trip to the mound with the knowledge that retirement awaits as soon as they exit the field.

Most players end their careers like Francisco Liriano, who had no idea he was making his final big league appearance Sept. 27, 2019, when he gave up a run in the eighth inning and was spared the loss when the Pirates scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to earn a 6-5 win over the Reds. A mere 842 days later, Liriano officially retired via a statement from his agent.

Of course, just getting the opportunity to officially announce his retirement meant a player fared awfully well — and, in Liriano’s case, provides an opportunity to look back at an eventful big league run in which the what-ifs of his early years ended up yielding a remarkable career in its own right.

Liriano’s career began in boisterous fashion during the pre-streaming days at the dawn of the prospect craze. In 2005, Liriano emerged as the hottest minor leaguer in the game by going 12-7 with a 2.63 ERA while striking out 204 and walking just 50 over 167 2/3 innings between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester. Liriano got better as the competition got better, going 9-2 with a 1.78 ERA and 112 strikeouts with 24 walks in 91 innings at Rochester.

Back when there were no reliable ways to view minor league games, Liraino’s starts became must-see events for anyone within driving distance. A walk-up crowd of more than 2,000 showed up Aug. 8, when Liriano pitched for Rochester against Ottawa in a game that began at 9:35 A.M.

Twelve days later, a sold-out crowd of 10,864 turned out at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I. and watched Liriano pitch like he should already be in the majors, or whatever league was higher than that. Opposing the Pawtucket Red Sox, Liriano allowed one run on four hits while walking one and striking out 12 over seven innings. He struck out eight of the nine starters for the PawSox and whiffed Kevin Youkilis — a member of the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox who would be a top-5 player in the AL, in terms of WAR, from 2006 through 2011 — three times, including once when Youkilis almost corkscrewed himself into the ground swinging and missing at a slider.

Today, watching pitchers mix a high-90s fastball with a sharp slider feels almost commonplace. But that was a video game combination in 2005 — especially coming from a left-hander such as Liriano, who, back in those quaint days when teams called up deserving prospects instead of playing games with their service time, struck out 33 and walked just seven in 23 2/3 innings with the Twins in September before opening the 2006 season in their bullpen.

“I think one of those moments (when) I kind of realized that this guy was really nasty was (when) Derek Jeter was at the plate and looked back at me and went ‘Wow,’” former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said in September 2018, when he was managing the Tigers and Liriano was in the Detroit rotation.

Liriano began 2006 by striking out 32 and walking just four over 22 1/3 innings in 12 relief appearances for the Twins — including a a 1 2/3-inning stint against the Yankees on Apr. 19, when Jeter successfully laid down a bunt — before being moved to the rotation May 19, when he actually began ratcheting up his otherwordly dominance.

In his first 14 starts, Liriano went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA while striking out 105 and walking just 28 in 92 2/3 innings. He went at least eight innings four times and tossed a one-hitter over six innings on May 31 before allowing one hit over seven innings on June 11.

The stretch established Liriano as not only the favorite in a Rookie of the Year race featuring another top-of-the-rotation pitcher in Justin Verlander and an immediate closing sensation in Jonathan Papelbon but also the leading contender in the Cy Young race. Liriano ended July with a major league-low 1.96 ERA, a figure bettered in non-strike seasons by just a handful of iconic pitchers — Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens twice apiece and Dwight Gooden and Ron Guidry once each — over the previous 30 years.

But Liriano pitched just two more times as a rookie. Appearing on nine days rest against the Tigers on Aug. 7, Liriano allowed four runs on 10 hits in four innings. He went on the disabled list with left elbow pain and came back on Sept. 13, when he allowed one hit in two scoreless innings against the Athletics. Continued elbow pain sent him back on the shelf and he didn’t pitch in the playoffs, when the Twins were swept by the Athletics.

Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery on Nov. 6, 2006 as the what-ifs, of the micro and macro variety, began in earnest. With Liriano and Papelbon, the latter of whom suffered a shoulder injury in September, sidelined, the potentially classic Rookie of the Year race turned into a nearly-unanimous rout in favor of Verlander, who’s won two Cy Youngs and an MVP and is headed to the Hall of Fame the moment he’s eligible. (Papelbon, who said hours before Liriano’s retirement that he’d never announce his retirement, became eligible for the Hall of Fame this year but fell off the ballot after receiving five votes)

“Liriano probably goes 22-1,” then-Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar said in 2006. “I mean, I don’t know if he gets beat.”

As for the Twins, how might things have turned out for a team that’s perpetually star-crossed in the playoffs — they haven’t won a single playoff game since 2003 — if Liriano was healthy and pitching for a 96-win squad that featured the AL MVP (Justin Morneau), Cy Young Award winner (Johan Santana) and AL batting champ (Joe Mauer)?

“We knew we had a good one,” Gardenhire said in 2018. “I wish he could have remained healthy that year.”

Liriano returned in 2008, but while he still had a terrific slider, his fastball never quite came all the way back. After producing a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.54 from 2005-06 — which ranked fourth among starting pitchers over those two years behind Ben Sheets, would-be Hall of Famer Curt Schilling, borderline Hall of Fame candidate Santana and Hall of Famer Roy Halladay — he posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.11 the remainder of his career while exceeding 185 innings twice. His ERA was 2.74 before surgery and 4.28 afterward.

“He doesn’t have that same stuff — they don’t chase as much now and that’s why he ends up walking people,” Gardenhire said in 2018. “It’s not as electric as it was. But he’s still pretty good when he’s going out there.”

And Liriano’s “pretty good” was also singularly impressive. Liriano won 99 games and recorded 1,638 strikeouts after his surgery. Only four other pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery since 2003 — A.J. Burnett, Matt Morris, Anibal Sanchez and Stephen Strasburg — have won more games following the elbow reconstruction procedure, with only Burnett, Strasburg and Sanchez recording more strikeouts.

Liriano threw a unicorn-like no-hitter on May 3, 2011, when he tossed 123 pitches and walked six while striking out just two. He won Comeback Player of the Year awards in both leagues. He appeared in a playoff game for four teams and went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 2013 for the Pirates, who made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years and came within a win of the NLCS. In 2017, Liriano earned a World Series ring with the Astros before making 28 starts for the Tigers in 2018 and 69 relief appearances for the Pirates in 2019.

Liriano, who made approximately $62 million in the bigs, ended up being one of those guys who had to have the uniform torn off his back. He went to spring training with the Phillies prior to the pandemic in 2020 and again with the Blue Jays in 2021 but didn’t pitch in the minors for either club, ending a career that began with glimpses of stratospheric brilliance and consisted of a no less notable second act.

“He was a stud,” Gardenhire said in 2018. “When he came up in ’05, it was the ‘wow’ factor. Pretty good.”

Pretty good thereafter, too.