PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Twins have yet to declare who will be the fifth starter in their rotation. But before Thursday's spring exhibition game against the Rays, manager Ron Gardenhire acknowledged what has seemed to be apparent for some time -- Francisco Liriano has the edge when it comes to winning the job. "I would say Liriano has a big advantage going in right now," Gardenhire said. "He's the guy we're looking at to be our fifth starter. I don't think anybody doubts that. We'll let them all keep pitching and see what happens. But Liriano, the way he's throwing the ball, he's ahead of everyone."
Perhaps one reason that the Twins have not yet named a winner in the race is that Liriano is not just being considered for that fifth starting job. He's also been mentioned as one of the candidates for the closer job if the Twins are unable to acquire a closer through a trade. The Twins have been scouring the market to see if they can find an option to fill the role left vacant by Joe Nathan, who will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery on his right elbow on Friday. But if they are unable to trade for a closer, then some people in the organization believe that Liriano could be a good fit in that spot. So the question remains: Which role will it be for Liriano? Liriano has been preparing to be a starter and the coaching staff has told him that is his role for now. But he's heard all the talk about him possibly in the closer role as well. The left-hander said he's been getting phone calls from friends back home in the Dominican Republic asking him about it. It's why Liriano seems as anxious as anyone to find out who will be the Twins' closer.
"They haven't decided, right?" Liriano asked reporters after his start on Thursday against the Rays.A closer has not been named, at least not yet. And for now, Liriano is pleased to know that he's been considered the leading candidate for the fifth rotation spot. "I feel like I've been throwing the ball pretty good," Liriano said. "I think I deserve to be the No. 5 starter. So if they give me the opportunity, I'll be pretty happy with it. I'm pretty comfortable with where I am right now." In his latest outing on Thursday, Liriano continued to stretch out as a starter throwing 67 pitches over four innings. Liriano wasn't quite as sharp as he had been in previous outings, allowing three runs on seven hits over his four innings. He said he's still working on the location of his fastball, although it was his changeup that wasn't working so well this time out against the Rays. Even without his changeup and his fastball location not quite perfect, Liriano managed to strike out six batters over his first three innings. Liriano now has 22 strikeouts in 14 innings pitched this spring. He has walked just two batters and has posted a 3.86 ERA. The other candidate for the fifth rotation spot, Brian Duensing, also pitched in Thursday's contest. He threw four innings and gave up two runs on two hits. If the Twins make a decision to try Liriano out as the closer, Gardenhire said he would be comfortable making Duensing his fifth starter. Otherwise, if Liriano wins the starting fifth spot, Duensing would be in the bullpen. "He's throwing the ball really well," Gardenhire said of Duensing. "If we wanted to put him in the rotation, I've got no problem with that at all. I like the way he throws the ball." Liriano couldn't help but laugh when he was continually asked questions about the possibility of him becoming a closer. When a reporter joked that he might be the leading candidate for both the fifth starter's spot and the closer's job, he replied, "That's a good thing, then." One of the biggest questions for the Twins is to determine whether having Liriano in a closing role would be a good thing for the pitcher. And also they have to find out if he's really interested in doing the job. That question was asked of Liriano again by reporters on Thursday. He said the same thing as before: he'd do the job, although he'd still prefer a spot in the rotation. This time, though, Liriano's stance on the issue seemed to soften a bit. "I'm a little more OK with it now," Liriano said of the idea of closing. "You have to be ready for anything in baseball. I just want to be here." The Twins aren't expected to make a decision on their closer job until the very end of spring, waiting to see if they can acquire a closer. So for now Liriano will continue to be the front-runner for the fifth spot in the rotation. That is, until anyone says differently. "Frankie is a rotation guy, not a bullpener," Gardenhire said after Thursday's game. "He's a rotation guy and then in another week I'll tell you if he's still a rotation guy."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.