Francisco Liriano has built upon a strong end of the 2016 season by putting on a show this spring, and putting a stronghold on the fifth rotation spot.
For the Toronto Blue Jays, Francisco Liriano was like getting a sweater from your mom at Christmas — the gift you needed, but not necessarily the one you wanted. Liriano, who early in his career was a top prospect but struggled to find consistency from season to season, was traded to the Blue Jays in August along with Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez in exchange for another former top prospect, Drew Hutchison.
Coming into the spring, Liriano has been tabbed as the fifth starter — to replace the departed R.A. Dickey — unless he really had a bad showing, but the job was his to lose. But the veteran Dominican has shown he is ready for a full season with the team by throwing pure fire in Grapefruit League action.
In three spring starts, the 33-year-old has given up just two earned runs in 9.2 innings, striking out an astonishing 18 batters in the process. Notably, Liriano has walked just two, and that has been a major Achilles Heel for him over the years.
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Steamer projects Liriano will start 24 games for Toronto, to a line of 9-8, 3.97 ERA, 142 SO, 63 BB, 1.37 WHIP. While those numbers don’t reach his best career seasons, it’s fair to expect he won’t be having a career year at 33 with the Blue Jays. However, a season like that would be excellent for a fifth starter for the rotation, and would go a long way toward giving the Blue Jays a leg up on a third straight playoff run.
Technically, Aaron Sanchez was the fifth starter last year, but if you consider that Liriano is replacing Dickey, a season like the one projected would be a big boost from Dickey’s 2016 season (10-15, 4.46, 0.4 WAR, 28 HR allowed).
Liriano came to Toronto with limited expectations, struggling through a subpar 2016 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but all that changed when he joined the Blue Jays, who were fighting for a playoff spot the final two months of the season.
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Liriano was expected to replace Sanchez, who already had a big workload, but the Blue Jays instead went with a six-man rotation. The lefty was put in with much trust during the Wild Card game against Baltimore (about the time when Buck Showalter chose not to put Zach Britton into the game) and retired all five batters he faced, before Edwin Encarnacion sent everybody home with a thrilling walk-off home run.
It’s also worth noting that this is a contract year for Liriano. His three-year deal with Pittsburgh is over at the end of this season, so his performance could also indicate the strength of his market in free agency.
After a tough season with the Pirates, the Blue Jays are just counting on the fact that Liriano will carry that spring confidence into the season and duplicate how he finished 2016, but all signs point to that dream becoming a reality.