Trying to justify the A.J. Pierzynski/Francisco Liriano/Joe Nathan trade in hindsight is a thankless, creepy affair. You know how it turned out. It was one of the more lopsided trades of the past 20 years, and I feel like someone denying the moon landing when I defend the trade.
But here we go: Joe Nathan had a great year in 2003, but he was a disaster in triple-A in 2002 as he recovered from serious shoulder problems. Boof Bonser was a former first-round pick with declining velocity. It wasn't an outrageous amount to offer for a young starting catcher years away from free agency.
Oh, and there was one other part of the deal. A 20-year-old left-handed starter who was so injury prone that his career high in innings was 80. The season right before the trade, he threw nine innings. If you are a GM, and you refuse to throw a pitcher fitting that description into a trade for young, cost-controllable, All-Star catcher, you should probably be fired.
We all know how it worked out, of course. Pierzynski was a double-play machine when his grounders weren't hit off the hard Metrodome turf, and he rankled just about everyone in the Giants' organization. He was like the Johnny Bench of jackasses when the team was hoping for the Terry Kennedy of catchers. The team released him rather than offer him arbitration. Nathan became one of the better closers in baseball for almost a decade.
And Francisco Liriano become a pitching prospect with Stephen Strasburg-levels of hype. That reads like hyperbole, but it's true. When Liriano started, it was a baseball event. He made the 2006 All-Star team despite not starting a game until the end of May. At the end of July, Liriano had 137 strikeouts and 32 walks in 115 innings with a 1.96 ERA. He was 22.
He was Sandy Koufax without the slow start to his career, the archetype of what a left-handed power pitcher should be. And he was still injury prone. Instead of building on his legend, Liriano struggled to stay healthy. He had something of a renaissance season in 2010, finishing with 191 innings and a stray Cy Young vote, but his top two comparable players on Baseball Reference tell the story of his career better than his Wikipedia page probably does: Mike Sirotka and Donovan Osborne.
When he's been healthy, he hasn't always been good. If WAR is your thing, Baseball Reference has him at -0.6, 3.8, and 0.7 over the last three years. Those are a pair of disappointing 130-inning seasons surrounding the renaissance in 2010. Last season, the most worrisome part might have been the sharp spike in his walk rate (5.0 walks per nine innings) and steep decline in his strikeout rate (7.5 strikeouts per nine innings, down from 9.4 the season before).
This all comes up today because Liriano had a somewhat-promising outing in the Grapefruit League on Tuesday, striking out five batters in three innings. It's only somewhat promising because he allowed four hits and hit a batter in the third inning, giving up four runs. But the control is important. The strikeout stuff is important. Liriano had plenty of both to spare when he was just 22.
Lirano will be a free agent after this year. He'd love to have a great season and reap the financial rewards. The Twins will have to decide whether they'll attempt to keep him, but they'd love it if Liriano had a rebound season to a) help them win baseball games, and b) give the organization a highly desirable trade chip in July. Even if the Twins aren't especially confident that they can compete with the Tigers, and a productive Liriano would still mean a lot to them.
The saga of Liriano has been an extended, drawn-out tale, and to this point it's been something of a maudlin story. He's still just 28. He still has a tremendous arm. But we've already stopped expecting Sandy Koufax. There's still a chance for the Dave Stewart career path, though.