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Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Francisco Liriano could help fill a veteran leadership void

Kevin Gorman
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova throws during the fourth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Brewers Saturday, July 14, 2018, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano pauses on the mound during his final game at PNC Park Tuesday, July 26, 2016, against the Mariners.

BRADENTON, Fla. — It was no coincidence that Francisco Liriano had a corner locker waiting for him inside the clubhouse Monday at Pirate City, in the same spot where Ivan Nova once resided.

Where Pittsburgh Pirates fans bemoaned the trade that sent Liriano to Toronto – along with two top-10 prospects for pitcher Drew Hutchinson – as a salary dump, Pirates players believed it was even more damaging to their clubhouse chemistry.

Liriano was a leader, especially with the Latin players. The Dominican Republic native was admired and respected as a pitcher who was an All-Star in 2006 and threw a no-hitter in 2011 for the Minnesota Twins and earned the win in the Pirates’ 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the 2013 NL wild-card game.

And he hopes to resume that role.

“One of the reasons why is you’ve got a lot of young Dominican players and Latin players,” Liriano said, “so I can help them do the right thing and try to do everything we can to win some ballgames and be our very best every day.”

1. No more Nova: The past three seasons, young Pirates pitchers gravitated to Nova for advice.

But the Pirates traded Nova to the Chicago White Sox in the offseason, leaving a leadership void for the Latin pitchers.

The Pirates might have signed Liriano to a minor-league contract as much for his ability to mentor as his effectiveness as a pitcher who can work out of the rotation or bullpen.

Liriano was teammates with Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz with the Astros, and Feliz believes Liriano can make a positive impact on the Pirates’ pitching staff the same way Nova did.

“It’s great when you have leadership like Liriano and Nova,” Feliz said. “You can learn from them, you can talk to them. When I saw Pittsburgh signed this guy, my heart felt happy because I’m going to get to work with a guy I know and a guy I can ask a lot of questions about this game. He can be the same guy as Nova.”

2. Good deal, part I: One thing I never participated in was the outrage over the Pirates trading Liriano, given his declining performance and $13 million salary.

Fans were furious that the Pirates padded the deal by including two top-10 prospects in catcher Reese McGuire, a former first-round pick, and outfielder Harold Ramirez.

The Pirates got nothing out of their return, as pitcher Drew Hutchinson flopped. But the Blue Jays didn’t get much out of Ramirez, who was stuck in Double-A and signed with the Miami Marlins, and McGuire projects as a backup catcher behind top-100 MLB prospect Danny Jansen.

But the Blue Jays did get return value when they dealt Liriano to Houston, as outfielder Teoscar Hernandez hit 22 home runs with 57 RBI last season for Toronto.

3. Good deal, part II?: Trading Nova, who was 25-25 in 71 starts over three seasons with the Pirates, didn’t generate nearly as much anger this offseason.

Perhaps that’s because the starting rotation is considered a strength of this team, with Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer and Musgrove returning and top prospect Mitch Keller in Triple-A.

Or maybe it’s because the Pirates didn’t want to pay $8.5 million to a pitcher coming off a 9-9 season with a 4.14 ERA, one who wasn’t one of the top three starters in their rotation.

Whether it’s a good deal will depend on how their fifth starter performs this season.

4. Clean slate: Archer didn’t want to talk about his 2018 season, including the abdominal injury that required surgery, and the right-hander was adamant that he’s putting it behind him.

“Look, I’m healthy so it’s not something I’m really thinking about anymore,” Archer said. “If we would’ve talked four weeks ago, we’d be having a different conversation. But I feel great, man. Injury is not on my mind whatsoever.

“Really, anything that happened last year is not on my mind, whether I was contending for the Cy Young or I had the year that I had, I’m not really thinking or dwelling on last year because it’s a clean slate – new year, new team, new everything.”

But Archer did say he has set “lofty goals” for this season, and he certainly has the motivation after a down year for him.

5. Numbers game: Don’t discount the potential impact Liriano and fellow Dominican Melky Cabrera inside the Pirates’ clubhouse, as they are long-time veterans with great experience.

What’s amazing is that both debuted in the 2005 season – Cabrera at age 20 with the Yankees and Liriano at age 21 with the Twins – and became MLB mainstays.

Consider some of the Pirates’ first-round picks to make their MLB debuts since then: Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole were 22, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Austin Meadows were 23 and Jameson Taillon and Kevin Newman 24.

Liriano and Cabrera could lend a valuable veteran presence for the Pirates, provided they make the team.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.