Liriano the Buc, and Three Starters on the Comeback Trail

Francisco Liriano has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract worth $12.75 million with the Pirates according to Jon Heyman. In less publicized news, a trio of once exciting pitchers agreed to minor-league contracts. Jeremy Bonderman signed a deal with the Mariners, Scott Kazmir signed with the Indians, and Rich Harden inked a deal with the Twins. None of the three pitchers pitched in the majors last year.

Liriano is a maddeningly inconsistent pitcher that looks brilliant for stretches of time, and completely lost at other times. Dave Cameron wrote an excellent piece that, not exclusively, looked at Liriano failing to pitch to his peripherals. In short, Cameron insinuated that Liriano may be an outlier, and that things such as his poor strand rate for his career may be more than random variance. While I don't disagree with that assessment, I do think Liriano is a worthwhile gamble in fantasy leagues. Also, for those that didn't click on the link and read the entire article, Cameron concluded that the gamble on Liriano isn't a bad one for the Pirates.

Liriano will be pitching for an National League team for the first time in his career, and that should help him. That move is no small deal, and Derek Carty examined the actual impact in an article for FanDuel back in August of 2011. The numbers have probably changed a bit if you include pitchers who have changed leagues since the study was conducted, but the point remains the same, the change is a positive one for pitchers.

The reason for gambling on Liriano is simple, he misses bats in bunches. He has struck out more than a batter per-inning in two of the last three seasons. Amongst qualifying pitchers, Liriano has the sixth highest strikeout rate (8.95 K/9) from 2010-2012. Some Justin Verlander guy ranks one spot behind him on that list. Not everyone on that list is a stud (Bud Norris ranks eighth and Jonathan Sanchez ranks ninth for instance), but it's a good starting point since strikeouts account for 20 percent of the pitching categories in standard leagues.

Liriano needs velocity to post his gaudy strikeout rates, and he had it last year. Brooks Baseball had his fastball cooking at just under 94 mph last year, which isn't far behind his fastball velocity in 2010 (which was just above 94 mph), and is almost 1.5 mph higher than it was in 2011. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that his worst strikeout rate, 7.44 K/9, in the last three years came in 2011.

All wasn't great for him last year though, as he struggled with walks (5.00 BB/9) and his groundball rate was way down. The groundball rate drop could be a result of coaching, as Baseball Prospectus had him sporting a 47 percent groundball rate with the Twins and a 42 percent rate with the White Sox. Liriano was acquired by the White Sox at the end of July. In the month of July, as a member of the Twins, he threw his four-seam fastball just 16 percent of the time, leaning more heavily on his sinker and throwing that 35 percent of the time. Those rates changed dramatically in August, as a member of the White Sox, and he threw his four-seam fastball 25 percent of the time versus throwing his sinker just 21 percent of the time. By September, he was back to throwing his sinker slightly more than his four-seam fastball, so it remains to be seen which fastball he prefers to throw this year.

As nice as his plus velocity fastball is, his slider and changeup are his strikeout weapons. He used his slider 66 percent of the time he had a left-handed batter in a two strike count, and he even used it over 50 percent of the time against right-handed batters with two strikes. According to Brooks Baseball's data, 117 of 228 at-bats that ended with a slider resulted in a strikeout, some resulting in ugly swings such as those highlighted by Sam Miller back in June. The silliness of his slider overshadows a stellar changeup that ended 23 of 90 at-bats in a strikeouts. Liriano has all the talent necessary to turn in a year similar to 2010 this season, and the Pirates and his fantasy owners hope he'll turn back the clock and dominate after putting on the black and yellow much like his new teammate A.J. Burnett did last year.

The other three pitchers mentioned above are much less likely to succeed with their new clubs, but there is chance each has value at some point this year. Bonderman is probably the hardest to project given the fact he's had the lengthiest layoff of the bunch. He hasn't thrown a pitch in a game that counts since 2010, and he was not good that season. He was unsigned for 2011, and he spent all of last year recovering and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery he underwent last April. In his best years, he relied almost exclusively on a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a slider, rarely throwing his below average changeup. It's unlikely his changeup will miraculously be better upon his return, and his signing with the Mariners is significantly less exciting with the changes being made to Safeco Field. Still, with recent crazy success stories for former top prospects that struggled their first go-round like Colby Lewis and Ryan Vogelsong fresh and in our memories, it doesn't hurt to keep tabs on Bonderman from a distance.

Kazmir's fall from grace was swift, and it has been years since he's been relevant in the big leagues. He hasn't thrown a pitch in affiliated ball since 2010 as a member of the Angels Triple-A Salt Lake team. Kazmir was awful in that abbreviated season, but continued his attempt to get back to the majors last year pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters of The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. His final season line in 2012 doesn't inspire much confidence he can bounce back, but the 90-94 mph fastball he reportedly displayed in the Puerto Rico Baseball League this winter is encouraging. His 4.37 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in winter ball aren't pretty, but his eight walks and 27 strikeouts in 22.2 innings are good for solid rates of 3.18 BB/9 and 10.72 K/9. The Indians rotation is in flux, and a strong showing in spring training might allow Kazmir to crack it. His left-handedness may earn him a bullpen role should he fail to win a starting job in the spring.

Harden pitched in the majors most recently of the three pitchers that signed minor-league deals, starting for the A's on September 25, 2011. He made 15 starts for the A's that year, and finished with a staggering strikeout rate of 9.91 K/9. His walk rate was 3.38 BB/9, the best rate of his career, but he was undone by gopher balls. He served up 17 home runs in 82.2 innings pitched, seven allowed while pitching in the home run suppressing O.co Coliseum in Oakland. Harden missed all of last year while recovering from surgery to repair a torn right shoulder capsule. In his career, Harden has been on the disabled list six times due to shoulder problems. Suffice to say, he'll have questions to answer in regard to withstanding the rigors of pitching and regaining his pre-surgery form.

When he has been healthy, Harden has lived off a two pitch mix of a four-seam fastball in the low-to-mid-90s and a changeup that resides in the mid-80s. He is a flyball pitcher with a groundball rate of only 34 percent each of his last two seasons in the majors according to Baseball Prospectus's data. His flyball approach would fit Target Field when it opened and had a park factor home run index of .641 (1.000 being neutral) as calculated by ESPN, but that rate rose to .913 in 2011, and rose yet again last year to 1.031. Stat Corner, which uses rolling three-year data, gives the park a home run index factor of 78 (100 being neutral) for left-handed batters and 103 for right-handed batters. One year of data probably isn't sufficient to label it a slightly home run friendly park, but the last two years should dispel any thoughts that it is a ballpark where all flyballs go to die. Twins general manager Terry Ryan has indicated that the team will evaluate whether Harden will start or relieve in camp, and that he believes he has the stuff to work in either role. Harden's ability to strike batters out (9.20 K/9 in his career) at a high rate makes him a potentially useful fantasy pitcher in either role, but he'll have to prove his health before he can be considered even a sleeper in AL-only leagues and large mixed league formats.