Francisco Liriano turns Dominican winter into dominant spring

For the first time since Game #163 last season, the Twins and Tigers take to the diamond this eve, with Francisco Liriano and his A.L.-best (tied) 1.29 ERA looking to extend his 15 inning scoreless streak on the hill.

Liriano hasn't looked this dominant since, well, the end of January.  That's when "The Corner Store" (still working back to "The Franchise" moniker, in my opinion) helped lead his Leones del Escogido ("Lions of the Chosen") team to the Dominican Winter League title, the Santo Domingo-based club's first since 1992.

After allowing just two earned runs in 11.2 innings of work for Leones in their regular season, Liriano dominated la Liga Dominicana de Béisbol (LIDOM) in the postseason, going 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven starts.  He also recorded 47 playoff strikeouts in 37 innings.

LIDOM, while obviously not offering MLB-caliber play, is still considered among the world's finest leagues, sporting rosters dotted with Major League Has-Beens (Timo Perez, Ramon Ortiz), Will-Be's (Juan Francisco, Tobi Stoner), and Hangers-On (Raul Valdez, Nelson Figueroa, Jorge Sosa).  More prominently: LIDOM has long stood as a temporary workplace for MLB studs to hone their skills during the off-season.  In recent years, Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejada, Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero have all donned a LIDOM jersey for namely brief winter stints.


But namely, this is a league of prospects looking to ascend to the Show.  That's why, for some skeptics, Liriano's gaudy winter numbers were matched with a Man-among-Boys asterisk.  To wit: of LIDOM's regular season or playoff campaign batting average leaders (top-10) since 2007, just one man, the Angels' Erick Aybar, has had an ensuing MLB season in which he batted in his league's top-20.  Based on 2.7 plate appearances per game to qualify, Aybar clipped at a .348 regular season rate and .355 playoff mark in 2008 for the Tigres de Licey before hitting .312 for L.A.A. the season following.  From the hill: no LIDOM top-10 ERA pitching leader in that same stretch has ensued with a 17 win MLB season.

But a leader-to-leader comparison doesn't wholly flesh out these numbers.  In recent years, there's been some notable segues from Dominican winter domination to immediate MLB accomplishment.  Sticking with the Angels: in 2007, Ervin Santana posted a 2.13 playoff ERA for Licey before running off a fine, 16-7 year for L.A.A. in '08.  In the '08 season for LIDOM, Santana's fellow Angel, Kendry Morales, batted .368 in the playoff for Gigantes del Cibao before a .306, 34 HR 2009 with L.A.A.  In that same LIDOM season, Nelson Cruz hit .354 in the postseason for Gigantes before his 33 HR season with the Rangers.

From a pitching vantage, Ubaldo Jimenez led LIDOM in playoff ERA in 2008, posting a 2.13

for Tigres del Licey.  The ensuing MLB season found Jimenez with a 15-12 record and 3.47 ERA for Colorado.  Last winter, Jimenez returned for Licey to post a 2.49 postseason ERA before crafting a 4-0 April for the Rockies this spring, that run of course highlighted by his 4/17 no hitter over Atlanta.

While these examples serve as the exception, Liriano's segue at the back of the Twins' rotation is yielding a glimpse of some serious early-season growth.  His confidence appears nearly tangible, and his numbers follow suit.  Through three starts, he's tossed that once celebrated slider 29.3 percent of the time, representing the highest clip for the pitch since he mixed it for over 37 of his pitches in 2006.  In addition, his first pitch strike rate of 59.8 percent is his highest since his 60.5 percent first offering of that same '06 season of yore.  And perhaps most importantly: while Liriano undoubtedly devolved through games last year, 2010 finds hitters batting just .120 and .143 in their second and third at-bats against him, respectively.

It's crazy to consider how much has been penned on Liriano, given that the guy has just two more career wins (26) than Frank Viola had in 1988 alone.  But perhaps what we're witnessing now is a maturation of his unquestioned talent -- a chapter leaving injury & lament behind in favor of renewed belief and, yes, expectation.  The season remains young, but, at 26, Liriano is no longer in his pro infancy.  And while we may hope that his future might still offer the work of an Ace, let us today be patiently optimistic that the man will prove to be the best No. 5 starter in all of baseball.