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Liriano a possibility to slot into closer role

Liriano a possibility to slot into closer role

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins are waiting to see if Joe Nathan can pitch with the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow before they start to publicly delve into their other closing options.

But if Nathan is unable to pitch, Francisco Liriano's name will likely be thrown in the mix.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Friday that all of the pitchers in big league camp are in consideration for the role besides the four locks for the rotation -- Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey.

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"Everybody after those [pitchers] is considered a possibility if Nathan can't close," Gardenhire said.

Liriano, 26, has already been talked about within the organization as a possible fit for the closer spot should Nathan be unable to rehabilitate the significant tear to the UCL in his elbow and need to undergo surgery.

Currently, Liriano is competing with fellow lefties Brian Duensing and Glen Perkins for the fifth spot in the rotation. His performance in the Dominican Winter League created a lot of buzz this past offseason and appeared to put Liriano among the favorites to win the final starting job.

The Twins hope the left-hander can recapture some of the magic he had early in his career, prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery. And so far this spring, Liriano seems to be giving reason for that hope, having thrown four scoreless innings and striking out six in his two Spring Training outings.

The lefty impressed Minnesota's coaching staff, particularly Gardenhire, with his performance in his second spring outing on Thursday night. Liriano threw two scoreless innings in relief, striking out three batters and inducing plenty of ugly swings-and-misses in the outing.

"This game is all about confidence," Gardenhire said. "Last year, he had just lost his confidence. He was questioning himself about which pitch to throw and all those things. When your stuff gets to a certain point and comes back, and your arm feels good and your body feels good, then everything starts to fall into place. By listening to him talk, that's about where he is right now."

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Although Liriano pitched in relief on Thursday, it was just an attempt to get enough innings for all of the starters that the club currently has in the mix -- not a sign that a move to the bullpen may be coming soon. The Twins are intent on keeping him as a starter for the time being, and Liriano is scheduled to start on Monday against the Marlins.

Still, the club hasn't ruled out the possibility that Liriano could eventually be moved to the bullpen and could perhaps get a shot at the closing job.

"In the spring, you'd like to put everyone in the role or position they are going to be in for the season," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "Unfortunately with some uncertainties we have right now, you don't know. You are going to proceed on and put them on the mound. Frankie will start Monday, stretch out in innings and we'll keep him like the rest of the starters and progress that way. If somewhere down the line, you go the other way then at least we got him stretched out. We'll figure that out as we go."

While Liriano appears to finally have gotten comfortable back in a starting role, the prospect of him as a closer is intriguing for a number of reasons.

Liriano possesses some of the best stuff on the Twins' pitching staff and so far this spring, he's starting to show command of his fastball to go along with his nasty slider and solid changeup. He also has the potential to strike out batters in key situations, something that Gardenhire pointed to on Thursday as a typical trait of a successful closer.

Another positive stat for Liriano is that opponents have batted just .216 in their first plate appearance against him over the course of his career and according to Baseball-Reference, Liriano has held opponents to a .238 batting average and a .678 OPS in high-leverage situations. But Liriano also struggled with runners on base last season.

So would Liriano have the mental makeup to be a closer? That's something the Twins wouldn't learn until they put him in that role, and it's not really a scenario that the club can try out with Liriano this spring.


"When we'll leave [Spring Training], we'll tell you who our closer is. Hopefully it will be Joe Nathan."
-- Ron Gardenhire

"As I said yesterday, it's impossible to simulate a real game in Spring Training," Gardenhire said. "You can say 'Develop a closer,' but it's impossible. All you do is build up their arm strength and get them where they can throw back-to-back days, and then when we'll leave here, we'll tell you who our closer is. Hopefully it will be Joe Nathan. We'll see."

In addition to Liriano, the Twins have a number of other pitchers in the mix for that closing spot should Nathan not be able to pitch this season. That includes Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain. Although Gardenhire included nearly all the pitchers as possibilities for the closer job, he did indicate that Pat Neshek, who is 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery, is a long shot to begin the year in the role.

"There is a ways to go with Neshek," Gardenhire said. "He hasn't had adrenaline facing hitters in a long time and as soon as he did, he couldn't walk for two days [due to a sore hamstring]. He didn't do drills for a couple days. That's where you are at with the Shaq man. He's got a ways to go. I think the arm is OK, but the rest of the body didn't cooperate, so there's issues. We'll see."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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