A key figure in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ resurgence in the mid-2010s surfaced Monday as Francisco Liriano announced his retirement from baseball.
The 38-year-old Dominican Republic native had a long and fruitful career, one that started after he signed with the San Francisco Giants in 2000 at the age of 17. Liriano wound up pitching for five major league teams – the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Houston Astros and Detroit Tigers in addition to two tours of duty with the Pirates.
Although he signed with the Giants, the left-handed Liriano never made it to San Francisco, as he was shipped to Minnesota after the 2003 season. Liriano appeared briefly for the Twins in 2005 but made his mark the following season by going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 28 appearances – 16 starts. However, he underwent elbow surgery that fall and missed the entire 2007 season. He had a successful return in 2008 but also had a few rocky seasons before the Twins dealt him to the Chicago White Sox at the 2012 trade deadline. His stay in Chicago was a short one, as he filed for free agency after the season ended.
That decision proved to be a beneficial one for the Pirates, who were finally starting to see their young talent, led by Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Neil Walker, hit their collective stride. The Bucs, who also had veteran A.J. Burnett as well as Gerrit Cole and not-yet-accomplished Charlie Morton on the mound, pulled off a steal when they signed Liriano to a team friendly two-year deal.
He made then-GM Neal Huntington look like a genius by going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts for the 2013 Pirates, then followed that up in the postseason by pitching seven innings of four-hit ball, allowing just one run in what came to be known as the Cueto Game – the Bucs’ triumphant wild-card victory at PNC Park over the Cincinnati Reds and their standout starter Johnny Cueto.
Many veteran Pittsburgh sports observers say it was among the most electric atmospheres of any sporting event in the city’s rich history. Liriano also got the ball in Game 3 of the National League Divisional Series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched well in a game the Pirates ended up winning, 5-3.
Liriano’s numbers weren’t as impressive in 2014, as he went 7-10, but still managed a 3.38 ERA in 162 1/3 innings, again helping the Pirates reach the postseason for the second straight year. Two months later, the Pirates re-signed Liriano to a three-year contract that reportedly would guarantee him $39 million – the largest free-agent contract in club history. It looked like a wise investment, as he put up another 3.38 ERA while going 12-7 in 31 starts in 2015 – the last year of the team’s run of three straight wild-card appearances.
Things fell apart for Liriano in 2016; he went 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA in 21 starts before being shipped to Toronto for minor league pitcher Drew Hutchison just one minute before the trade deadline. What angered Pirates fans was the fact that Pittsburgh also had to include two highly regarded prospects at the time – Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez – to help the Blue Jays swallow the remaining $18 million on Liriano’s contract. Many saw it as a blatant salary dump.
Liriano pitched well the rest of that season for Toronto, even getting a win in relief in the American League wild-card game, but after going 6-5 with a 5.88 ERA in 18 starts in 2017, he was sent to Houston, where he wound up pitching in three postseason games and earning a World Series ring.
Liriano’s lengthy baseball odyssey continued in 2018 when he pitched a full season as a starter for Detroit, then came back to finish his big league career with the Pirates in 2019. He actually put up solid numbers in some respects – a 5-3 record, 3.47 ERA, 63 strikeouts and 60 hits in 70 innings – but he also walked 35. By the end he was painful to watch. Throughout his career he lived outside the strike zone – former Trib writer Travis Sawchuk wrote in 2016 that Liriano had thrown the fewest pitches inside the strike zone among all starters since 2013, according to PITCHf/x – and hitters eventually started laying off his borderline offerings and teeing off on those that were hittable. That proved to be his undoing.
The 2019 season would be Liriano’s last taste of life in the big leagues, and Monday it became official when his agent announced his retirement. Liriano was never celebrated as one of the game’s greats, but considering that his accomplishments included an All-Star appearance, a no-hitter and 300 starts – and that Wild-Card win over Johnny Cueto — he should feel good about his major league career.