PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates are bringing back an old friend in a new role.
Pittsburgh has agreed to a Minor League contract with left-hander Francisco Liriano, who made three straight Opening Day starts for the Bucs from 2014-16. Liriano will report to Major League Spring Training. His contract is worth $1.8 million, if he makes the roster, with an additional $1.5 million in incentives, according to The Athletic.
Liriano is expected to compete for a spot in the Pirates' bullpen as a middle or matchup reliever, though he is capable of pitching multiple innings or starting if necessary.
Liriano, 35, previously pitched for the Pirates for 3 1/2 years. Pittsburgh signed him as a free agent before the 2013 season, and he went on to start the Bucs' National League Wild Card Game victory over the Reds at PNC Park. He stayed with Pittsburgh by signing a three-year, $39 million contract in December 2014.
Liriano put together identical 3.38 ERAs in 2014 and '15 as the Pirates returned to the NL Wild Card Game each season. But he struggled in '16, posting a 5.46 ERA in 21 starts for the Bucs before they sent him to the Blue Jays along with prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez in exchange for starter Drew Hutchison.
Overall, Liriano went 41-36 with a 3.67 ERA in 107 starts in a Pirates uniform.
The 13-year veteran hasn't consistently recaptured his old form since leaving Pittsburgh, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen for the Blue Jays, Astros and Tigers. He spent most of last season in Detroit's rotation, going 5-12 with a 4.58 ERA. Among all pitchers who worked at least 100 innings last season, he recorded the fourth-highest walk rate (12.5 percent) and the fourth-lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.51).
But there are reasons to believe Liriano can still be effective out of the bullpen.
Despite his surface-level struggles last year, Liriano dominated left-handed hitters and pitched well the first time through the lineup -- skills that should allow him to succeed as a reliever. He held lefties to a .170/.255/.261 slash line last season, and opponents slashed just .221/.316/.319 when facing him for the first time as a starter.
The Pirates now have three interesting left-handed relief options in front of lefty closer Felipe Vázquez: Liriano, non-roster invitee Tyler Lyons and rotation candidate Steven Brault. The back end of the Bucs' bullpen is already set with Vazquez and setup men Keone Kela, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodríguez. Nick Burdi could join them until he sheds his Rule 5 Draft restrictions, and right-hander Nick Kingham could also crack the bullpen as a long reliever if he doesn't make the Opening Day rotation.
Brault and Kingham will compete to be the Pirates' fifth starter this spring. Right-hander Jordan Lyles, who signed with Pittsburgh in December, is considered the favorite to join Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove in the Opening Day rotation.