Would Francisco Liriano be a possibility for the Nationals?

The Nationals’ search for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher might lead them to another candidate. There was news out of Minnesota last night that the Twins, who just avoided arbitration with left-hander Francisco Liriano, don’t consider him part of their long-term plans and might be looking to trade him before he becomes a free agent in 2012.

Joe Christensen (who’s a former Orioles beat writer, a fellow University of Minnesota alum and one of the best guys in the business) wrote that the Twins have so far turned their noses up at the prospect of a three-year, $39 million extension, which Liriano’s camp was floating recently. They no doubt saw the returns for Zack Greinke and Matt Garza, and might be tempted to move Liriano this year, before he gets too close to the open market.

This is a possibility for the Nationals, but there are a number of red flags with Liriano: First, he had Tommy John surgery in the middle of a dominant (as in, possibly better than Stephen Strasburg’s) rookie season in 2006. Liriano was shut down with elbow troubles, came back for a September start against Oakland that year and walked off the mound after one batter in the third inning, being replaced, interestingly enough, by Garza. I was sitting in the Metrodome that afternoon, with the Twins in the middle of a playoff surge, and remember thinking Liriano might never be the same pitcher. He didn’t put together a productive full season until last year, and even then, Liriano was still being dogged by arm troubles.

He’s got a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, but it’s the latter pitch that got Liriano in trouble in 2006, and could wind up hurting him again. As Christensen writes, he was throwing it nearly as often in 2010 as he was in 2006, going to it 34 percent of the time.

Liriano also blew a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees, and appeared to falter toward the end of the season. For a guy many people in the Twins organization compared to Johan Santana, it’s somewhat telling that his asking price for an extension was that low. Liriano still doesn’t have the numbers to ask for really big money, but his agent, Greg Genske, might also know there’s enough concern about his arm to prevent the 27-year-old from inching his average annual salary toward $20 million.

So what would it take for the Nationals to get Liriano? I’d assume the Twins would be looking for a similar prospect haul to what the Rays got for Garza this winter, so we’d probably be talking again about a package headlined by players like Danny Espinosa (the Twins could use a shortstop), Jordan Zimmermann or Drew Storen again. The Twins have some young outfield prospects, too, but I could see them having some interest in Eury Perez. They’ve got enough affordable pitching to think about trading Liriano in the first place, but they might not have anyone with Zimmermann’s ceiling. And Storen would help them replenish a bullpen that suffered heavy free agent losses this winter.

But this is all highly hypothetical at this point, and for the Nationals (and other teams looking for pitching), Liriano is a serious case of buyer beware. His delivery could get him in trouble again, and I’m not sure how many times he’ll throw 200 innings. He’s got impressive stuff, and he’s left-handed, of course; those two things alone could draw plenty of interest. This year’s free agent class is stocked with more pitching than last year’s, though, and for the Nationals, Liriano might not be the pitcher on which to spend some of their best prospects.