Minnesota's Francisco Liriano has struggled mightily following a near-Cy Young campaign in 2010. The White Sox will draw Liriano in next week's two-game Sox/Twins series at U.S. Cellular Field, and it could be the left-hander's final opportunity to stay in the Twins' rotation.
If the White Sox have learned anything over the last decade, it's never to write the Twins off. But Minnesota's performance in April is making that look like an enticing thing to do, especially given that the team may dump their ace out of the starting rotation in early May.
That is, if the White Sox can get their offense going.
Liriano will start Tuesday's series opener, with Minnesota coming from Kansas City after a three-game weekend series and the Sox wrapping up their four-game set with Baltimore the day before. If the Sox really want to deal an early blow to Minnesota, they'll tear up Liriano and continue his horrific start to the season.
Through five starts, Liriano has thrown just 23.2 innings—not even an average of five innings per start—while walking as many as he's struck out (18). Four of the 28 fly balls he's allowed have gone for home runs. And his ERA sits at an astronomical 9.13, with his FIP not helping matters at 6.13.
But, unless he's hurt, Liriano isn't this bad of a pitcher. Not even close. The projection system ZiPS expects Liriano to have a 3.49 FIP/4.27 ERA the rest of the season, which is hardly worth being dishonorably discharged in favor of Kevin Slowey (I'd argue if Slowey enters Minnesota's rotation, it should be for Nick Blackburn). Slowey's good, but he's not going to be the ace of the staff. Despite Liriano's struggles, he has the opportunity to be the ace of the staff.
Here's the big issue with Minnesota dumping Liriano, though: Slowey probably will pitch competently. So will Carl Pavano, so will Scott Baker, and so will Brian Duensing. Unless Blackburn really falters or somebody gets injured, the Twins may not see a reason to re-insert Liriano into the rotation this year. It's been well documented that the Twins aren't as high on Liriano as they should be, and these early-season struggles are likely only serving to strengthen the team's bias against the 27-year-old left-hander.
What does it mean for the White Sox? If they can't hit Liriano on Tuesday—just like they couldn't hit Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova, Brad Penny, etc.—Liriano will probably stay in the Twins rotation. And he'll probably get better and ultimately be the best pitcher on the staff.
If the Sox hit Liriano and chase him early, Liriano probably will be dumped from the Twins rotation. And he may not get a chance to return for a while, which could hurt the Twins' chances of digging themselves out of the hole they're already in thanks to mismanagement of Joe Mauer, the flu that's ravaged their clubhouse, Justin Morneau's slow recovery, Joe Nathan's struggles, Tsuyoshi Nishioka's broken leg...it goes on.
Through about one month, there's no clear-cut favorite in the AL Central. Cleveland, right now, is the best team in the division. But the Indians' pitching will be tested, as they currently have baseball's fourth-worst walk-to-strikeout ratio and fourth-lowest staff BABIP. If the division isn't already up for grabs, it very well could be really up for grabs a month from now.
Even though the White Sox and Twins are tied for last in the division right now, both teams still certainly have the ability to rise back up to the top of the division. The Twins will have an easier path with Liriano in their rotation. Tuesday may be the most important game the White Sox play in at least the month of May, maybe the first half. Keeping Liriano out of the Twins rotation means keeping the Twins down for a period of time. And that could be key if the two teams end up battling for the division along with Cleveland, Detroit, heck even Kansas City in September.