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01/26/08 8:24 PM ET

Liriano eager to return to mound

Twins lefty feeling healthy after year of rehabilitation

MINNEAPOLIS -- There has been plenty of intrigue this offseason regarding the status of a certain left-handed Twins pitcher.

And no, we're not talking Johan Santana.

The biggest question surrounding the Twins heading into the 2008 season, other than Santana, has been whether Francisco Liriano will be ready to rejoin the rotation.

Just a little over a year removed from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, Liriano was on hand this weekend for the club's annual TwinsFest. And he said Saturday that he'll be ready to go for the start of Spring Training.

"Everything feels good -- no pain, no soreness," Liriano said. "Now I'm just waiting to get started."

For Liriano, it has seemed like an eternity that he has been waiting to get back on the mound for the Twins.

Liriano was officially cleared for release from his rehabilitation program in November, exactly one year after his surgery. He returned home to the Dominican Republic shortly after that to continue his throwing, with the Twins monitoring his progress.

Since then, he's been getting ready for Spring Training without any restrictions.

"I've been throwing bullpens, live batting practice and long-toss," Liriano said. "I threw fastballs, changeups and some sliders. And when I throw, I don't feel anything in my elbow."

The prospect of adding the talented young lefty back into the rotation is very enticing for the Twins. Liriano was a candidate for American League Rookie of the Year in 2006 before being sidelined with elbow problems. He became the talk of the league that season, overwhelming his share of lineups and earning numerous accolades as he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and earned an All-Star bid.

But there are still plenty of questions to be answered before Liriano is slotted into the rotation. Having not pitched in a game since Sept. 13, 2006, Liriano will likely need some time to ease back onto the mound. Whether that means him beginning the year with a few starts in the Minor Leagues or not is unclear.

One thing that's certain is Liriano wants to be back as soon as possible.

"I'm ready to go the first day," Liriano said. "I don't know if they want me to take it slow or not. But I'm ready to go whenever they say so."

He's very close to finally getting back with all of his teammates, but Liriano admitted that the past year has been a test on his patience. The rehab program for Tommy John surgery is a long and tedious process, one that isn't all that exciting as it involves little mound work until the very end of the year-long program.

"It's been really slow and hard," Liriano said. "It's hard to stay patient and do what you have to do. But I have to be patient."

The entire process has changed Liriano's preparation. He's now included a daily strength training regimen as part of his workouts. It's helped to strengthen the muscles in his shoulder, considered to be a factor in his elbow problems, and has helped him add close to 20 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame.

"I'm working harder," Liriano said. "Before this, I didn't work out. Now I'm doing whatever I can to keep my shoulder strong."

Looking ahead to 2008, there are questions as to just how Liriano will fare following the surgery. Some pitchers have come back immediately from Tommy John surgery to pitch as well, if not better, than before. Others have taken longer to getting back to form.

The upcoming year will clearly be a big one for Liriano on the mound, but also off of it. The 24-year-old is set to become a father for the first time in April. His wife, Johanna, is expecting a baby boy.

It's clear that numerous changes are ahead for Liriano in the upcoming months. But considering the long road it's taken to get to this point, he's ready for whatever comes his way.

"I can't wait to get back into games," Liriano said. "I'm a little nervous to get back on the mound and face some hitters. But I feel better than ever now."

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