The Pittsburgh Pirates brought back an old pitching friend a few weeks ago. Will he be used as a starter or a reliever this year?
In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed lefty starter Francisco Liriano. Liriano ended up being a big-time pitcher for the Bucs over the next several years and was a big part of them making the playoffs. However, it all ended very controversially at the 2016 MLB Trade Deadline when the Bucs looked to offload his 5.00+ ERA and remaining salary to the Toronto Blue Jays. The controversy came when the team dealt away two prospects to help get the salary dump done.
Fast forward to last week, and Francisco Liriano is back in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. Liriano signed a minor league deal to come back with the Bucs with a contract incentive if he makes the big league club. The last two seasons he has pitched with the Toronto Blue Jays, the Houston Astros (both in 2017) and the Detroit Tigers (2018). During the 2017 season he pitched mainly out of the bullpen, making 38 total appearances, 18 starts with the Jays and 20 relief appearances with the Astros. Last year, he made 26 starts and one relief appearance with the Tigers.
So what will Liriano do for the Pittsburgh Pirates this year? An argument can be made for both starting and relieving. In his career, he has thrown 60 innings as a reliever, but it has resulted in an ERA of 4.80, which is significantly higher than his ERA as a starter. However, his splits may represent a silver lining and an opportunity. According to Rob Biertempfel, Liriano is open to whatever the Bucs ask him to do:
One complaint about the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen over the last few years in the lack of quality left-handed reliever, specifically a lefty specialist. The Bucs have used Steven Brault as their main lefty option out of the bullpen the last two seasons, but he has been used in more of a multi-inning role rather than a matchup role. In his career, Liriano has held left-handed batters to a slash of .218/.294/.303 and a wOBA of .271. He has always been very effective against lefties and could be a great option to use against the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, Matt Carpenter, and Christian Yelich.
The other option would be as a starter. Now, Liriano has not been nearly as effective as a starter recently as he was a few years ago. Last year in Detroit, his ERA was at 4.65 with a .336 wOBA against, not exactly great results. Still, the Pittsburgh Pirates have lacked a lefty presence in their rotation since they departed from Liriano, and in a division that has a lot of really good left-handed hitters, it could make sense to have him in the rotation.
Also, there is the possibility that coming back to Ray Searage and working on things that made him successful in the past could get him back to be a solid starter again. Yes, part of the reason he left here in 2016 was because he no longer wanted to make the adjustments that Searage was suggesting. Still, he has not found success since leaving which could lead him to be open-minded once again.
No matter what the Bucs decide to do with Liriano, it will mostly be dictated by how he does this spring. He is not guaranteed to make the roster as he is coming in on a minor league deal. However, if he can come in and show that he is ready to work along with Ray Searage and pitch in whatever role the team thinks is best, then he could be a valuable addition.