Twins' first job: Lock up Liriano

When the Twins were struggling with inconsistent performances from the bottom half of their rotation in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, many fans were clamoring for the addition of an established front-line starting pitcher.

After Cliff Lee and his reasonable contract were dealt to Texas for a ransom that the Twins probably couldn't have matched, Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt became the two top prizes on the market. While rumors had the Twins attached to both starters, those same clamoring fans were disappointed to see both Haren and Oswalt traded without any hint of a serious bid from Bill Smith and the Twins.

Was it that the Twins didn't have the trading pieces to make a deal happen? That seems unlikely, especially in the case of Haren, who was dealt to the Angels for an underwhelming package. It's more likely that the Twins' apparent lack of interest in either starter was rooted in the considerable contracts they were tied to -- Haren is owed $12.75M in each of the next two seasons and has a $13M club option for 2013, while Oswalt is owed $16M next year and has a $16M option for 2012 that he reportedly required his new team to pick up.

Fellow Twins blogger John Bonnes will tell you that the Twins don't have the financial flexibility to take on that kind of additional salary, period. But even if you subscribe to the widely held notion that the Twins' revenue in the new stadium is far exceeding expectations and that the team will be able to continue increasing payroll over the next few seasons, there's still no way they could have afforded to add one of those ace-caliber pitchers to their roster.


Because they've got their own ace-caliber pitcher to worry about.

Francisco Liriano hasn't quite returned to his 2006 form this season, but he's a lot closer than I ever expected he would be. Before this season, '06 -- when Liriano emerged as a near-perfect pitcher capable of posting elite K/BB/GB rates -- had become but a distant memory. The lefty had shown that he can still be a very good pitcher post-surgery when he put together a nice run late in the 2008 campaign, but overall it just didn't appear that he'd quite be able to regain that dominant edge.

However, Liriano dominated winter ball this year and created a lot of buzz. The buzz was extremely accurate. Liriano's command is better than last year by an order of magnitude, while his strikeout and grounder rates have returned to elite status. Some bad luck has kept his ERA and W/L record from looking as shiny as they could, but a 3.18 ERA is nothing to scoff at and his 5.5 WAR is tied with Roy Halladay for the best mark in baseball among pitchers.

At this point, I think we can comfortably say that Liriano is back. He's one of the league's best pitchers and a bona fide ace. Best of all, he's still only 26 years old, so there should be plenty of good years left ahead for the Dominican phenom.

Unfortunately for the Twins, Liriano wasted an awful lot of his cheap service time while working his way back from Tommy John surgery. The team managed to delay his arbitration clock by keeping him in the minors for much of the 2008 season, but he's set to become a free agent after 2012 and he figures to see big raises in both preceding years thanks to his elite performance this season.

If the Twins are wise (and confident the elbow problems are completely a thing of the past), they'll be looking to lock up Liriano through his first year or two of free agency as soon as possible. Given that Liriano has re-emerged as one of the best starting pitchers in the game, it figures he'll expect to be paid like it. That means $15 million-$20 million per season. At least.

If you think the Twins can afford to pay Liriano like that while also absorbing a salary like Haren's or Oswalt's, you're off your rocker. And if you think the team would be better off with one of those aging starters than the prime-aged and dominant Liriano ... well, there's probably no help for you.

Finding a way to pay Liriano should be the Twins' top priority at this point. Not adding another expensive veteran starter.

Nick Nelson writes regularly about the Twins at Nick's Twins Blog, a member of ESPN.com's SweetSpot Network.