The Pirates aren't waiting around for Jon Lester to unblock the starting pitching market. Having already brought back A.J. Burnett on a one-year, $8.5 million deal in mid-November, the Pirates struck again on Tuesday, re-signing Francisco Liriano to a three-year deal worth $39 million. Their new deal with Liriano, who had a base salary of just $6 million last year and will be 33 in the final year of his new contract, is a very reasonable one, bringing a pitcher who was instrumental in the Pirates' return to the postseason over the last two years back to the organization with which he salvaged his career two years ago.
In February 2013, Liriano was a free agent coming off a career-worst season in which he walked five men per nine innings and went 6-12 with a 5.34 ERA (78 ERA+) for the Twins and White Sox. The Pirates, intrigued by his live left arm and with little more to lose after 20 losing seasons, gave him a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2014 that guaranteed him just $1 million but included incentives that could make it worth $12.75 million over two years. That contract paid off beautifully for Pittsburgh after pitching coach Ray Searage got a hold of Liriano, had him shelve his mid-90s four-seam fastball in favor of increased emphasis on his sinker, changeup and slider, and introduced a small mechanical fix that improved his control as well as the break on all of his pitches.
"All we did was get him to stay over the rubber, and make his turn over the rubber, show his back pocket to the hitter," Searage told Sports on Earth's Howard Megdal early in the 2013 season. "It just ultimately gets him back over the rubber, and gets him into his turn. So this way, it gives him enough time to get his arm up."
The result was that Liriano emerged as the ace of the first winning Pirates team since 1992, going 15-6 with a 2.57 ERA from his return in early May through the end of August. He turned in three more quality starts in five turns in September to finish at 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and just 3.5 walks per nine innings, then dominated the Reds in the Wild-Card Game, the first postseason game in Pittsburgh since '92, and won Game 3 of the Division Series against the Cardinals, as well.
The follow-up season for both Liriano and the Pirates got off to a shakier start and saw Liriano lose a month to an oblique strain mid-year. However, from his return in mid-July through the end of the regular season, Liriano posted a 2.40 ERA in 15 starts, allowing just one run in his first four starts in September, as the Pirates surged back into the wild-card picture to host the Wild-Card Game once again. In the last two seasons combined, Liriano has posted a 3.20 ERA (111 ERA+) and has struck out 9.4 men per nine innings across 55 starts.
There are a few red flags in that performance. Liriano's walk rate swelled back up to 4.5 per nine innings in 2014, dropping his strikeout-to-walk ratio to a weak 2.16 despite his striking out 175 men in 162 1/3 innings. He remains injury prone, having made 30 starts in a season just once, that coming in 2010, and not topping those 162 1/3 innings since. In fact, he has never thrown 200 innings in a season, and there's no guarantee that he would remain effective if healthy enough to do so.
Still, this new contract isn't paying Liriano to be an ace, but to be a mid-rotation starter with the kind of upside that can lead to a 15-start run of dominance like he had in each of the last two seasons. It's a deal that's comparable to the three-year deals signed by Scott Feldman last winter ($30 million) and Kyle Lohse the previous March ($33 million), and his average annual salary is comparable to the $12.5 million per season of Ubaldo Jimenez's four-year deal with the Orioles.
It's also a contract that reveals the brilliance of the Pirates' decision to extend a qualifying offer to Liriano in November. Given that they were willing to play him $13 million a year for three years, the one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer was worth the risk, given that it came with draft pick compensation should he depart and that having a draft pick attached to his price likely severely reduced the market for Liriano's services outside of Pittsburgh. Rather than test that market the way that Ervin Santana and Jimenez did last winter, Liriano opted to return to the team helped him turn his career around in the hope of joining forces with 2013 teammate Burnett and emerging staff ace Gerrit Cole to lead the Pirates back to the postseason yet again.