BY LA VELLE NEAL
FORT MYERS, Fla.—Visa issues delayed Twins lefthander Francisco Liriano’s arrival to spring training, which didn’t faze an organization eager to see if their 24-year old phenom with the new elbow ligament could be ready to contribute in April.
That’s because the Twins wanted Liriano to hurry up and get to camp . . . so he can take it easy this year.
“Obviously we know he’s going to want to try to push it to the extreme,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Our job is going to make sure he understands to slow it down. We’ll see where we are at at the end of March.”
Liriano was 12-3, 2.16 in 2006 before a strained ulnar collateral ligament knocked him out in September and led to Tommy John surgery in November of that year. He had no setbacks while he spent 2007 rehabilitating.
A healthy Liriano could make the Twins a little more competitive in the tough American League Central—and help soothe broken hearts among fans following Johan Santana’s departure to the Mets.
Liriano was part of a handsome payoff for one of the Twins’ previous veteran selloffs, coming from the Giants with righthanders Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser in a November 2003 trade for catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
Now a new administration in Minnesota, led by general manager Bill Smith, is hoping the trade for Santana will help build another foundation for success. The Twins also traded young righthander Matt Garza in the offseason, with outfielders Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young leading the cast of players the Twins got in return.
Now the Twins have built their offense around young veterans like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and they’re counting on Liriano to become the next ace of the rotation. They have no reservations about putting him back into the rotation this season—if he earns it.
“No, not at all,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “A couple of years ago he was one of the best pitchers in baseball and if he can handle it, we’ll do it.”
In Need Of A Visa
Liriano has to prove that he has command of his pitches, the confidence in his elbow to let the pitches fly and that he’ll resist urges to push his comeback too hard.
But he couldn’t begin to prove any of this while his Twins teammates were in Fort Myers, Fla. on Feb. 18 for the start of pitchers and catchers workouts and he was still in the Dominican Republic.
Arrested for drunken driving in Cape Coral, Fla., during 2006 spring training, Liriano had to take a sobriety test and undergo counseling, the result of a toughened U.S. immigration policy that neither Liriano nor the Twins were aware of until it was time for him to fly to the country.
“It was bothering me a lot,” Liriano said of not being able to make the first workout, “but I made a mistake so I have to pay for it. Just have to move on.”
While the red tape was dealt with, Liriano traveled every couple of days from his home in Juan Baron, Dominican Republic, to the Twins’ Dominican academy in Boca Chica for workouts. As scout Fred Guerrero and coach Jeff Smith watched, Liriano pitched consistently between 92-95 mph and hit 97 a couple of times while also throwing his slider and changeup.
“I was throwing every other day, playing catch and throwing bullpens like twice a week,” he said. “Then I threw two games. That was it.”
Liriano reported to camp on Feb. 28, nine days late. Listed at 201 pounds in 2006, he’s more than 230 pounds now. He’s also been married since last seen on a major league mound and is expecting a child.
He headed for the bullpen that day, ready to make up for lost time, but Anderson spoke to him first and stressed how important it is to build toward the start of the season and not go all out.
So on an overcast morning in which a cold front knocked the temperature down into the 50s, Liriano held back.
“We didn’t really want him to get after it because it was cold, so today was a good day to loosen up the kinks, and we’ll do it again,” Anderson said.
Lefthander Brian Duensing, who was warming up in the bullpen at the same time but whose fastball only reaches the low 90s, looked like he was throwing harder than Liriano. Liriano also struggled with command and clearly missed Anderson’s input during his outings in the Dominican Republic.
Take It Easy
It was much warmer when Liriano threw two days later but Anderson asked him to hold back again. He struggled with his command when the 12-minute session began but was sharper as he progressed.
“You know I can throw harder, but they tell me to take it easy,” he said. “I’m a month away (from Opening Day). Got plenty of time to get ready.”
Anderson also is concerned about Liriano trusting himself to let the ball go and finish off his pitches. A pitcher can look him in the eye and tell him he’s confident enough to do so, but actually doing it is different.
“His biggest thing is overcoming the mental block,” Anderson said. “He did it at the end today, throwing the ball down and located it. He didn’t think about it, he just did it and that’s good.”
Then on March 2, Liriano was allowed to throw batting practice to a few players. He was not asked to hold back.
Liriano grunted at times as he left the ball go. He worked on getting the feel for this changeup but was disappointed that he couldn’t spot his slider the way he wanted to.
“The slider, sometimes I hang it,” he said. “I just have to work on it, that’s all.”
Few balls were put into play during the 12-minute session, which was watched by Anderson, Gardenhire, other coaches and media members.
“That was outstanding,” And erson said. “He’s not a great practice guy, he’s more of a game guy. And watching him get after it was pretty encouraging.”
Liriano was expected to pitch in spring games in early March, with time for him to win a spot on the roster. It will be roughly 17 months since surgery if he opens the season in the Twins’ rotation.
Everything points to a season of low expectations for Liriano. His pitch counts will be watched and it’s practically a sure thing that he won’t pitch anywhere close to 200 innings during his comeback year. The Twins will not ruin Liriano’s career by allowing him to rush through his return or by throwing too many innings.
“We’ve got to protect him,” Anderson said. “At the beginning of the season, we’ll keep an eye on him, how he’s feeling and his strength. It’s something we are going to watch all year. I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot early but maybe later, in terms of fatigue, from just not throwing for a year and a half. It’s something we are going to keep an eye on.”