Francisco Liriano should be the Pirates’ Opening Day starter


You don’t give a left-hander $39 million during the offseason and not slot him in as the Opening Day starter.

At least, not if you’re the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The team awarded southpaw Francisco Liriano a three-year, $39 million deal this winter – the largest deal in organization history. In his first year in Pittsburgh, 2013, he helped the club break a postseason drought that spanned decades – following that performance up with another respectable campaign in 2014.

The 31-year-old former Minnesota Twins standout broke the 160-inning mark for the second consecutive year last season, pitching to a 3.38 ERA, 3.59 WHIP and 1.300 WHIP in 29 starts for the Pirates. Those numbers are a step down from the league’s top performers, but, ultimately he was one of the top starting pitchers in the Pittsburgh rotation.

Record-wise, the left-hander struggled in the season’s first month, going 0-3 across his first half-dozen outings. However, the next two months – May and June – were worse across the board. In May, Liriano posted a 5.34 earned run average – the worst measure in any month during the 2014 campaign. He improved a little in June, but made just two starts – pitching to a 4.50 ERA to go along with an impressive 12.4 K/9 mark.

What it came down to for the southpaw was simple: down the stretch, when the games mattered most, Liriano delivered time and time again.

In the season’s second half, the former American League All-Star cruised to a 2.20 ERA across 14 starts, although his 4.35 mark in his outings at PNC Park is a little head-scratching, to say the least. That being said, there can be little doubt Francisco Liriano is the man to take the ball in big games in 2015.

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Over the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has made a pair of postseason appearances – changing the very culture surrounding the ball club. A big part of that can be attributed to manager Clint Hurdle. However, with a mix of young and old arms in the starting rotation, at least some credit is due to Liriano – who led the youngsters on the staff after A.J. Burnett headed to Philadelphia last season.

Last season, the left-hander took the ball against the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day, doing his part in a 1-0 win – which came courtesy of a walk-off home run from hometown boy Neil Walker. Although he did not factor into the decision, he started the team’s season off on a high note – and despite his early season struggles, showed no reason he can’t handle the role again in 2015.

There will be those who say that the time is here for Gerrit Cole to assume the reins. And it wouldn’t be hard to back that argument with sound logic. However, for the time being, Liriano has shown he has the stuff – and with the big payday in tow – it’s time for him to once again lead this pitching staff into the new season.

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