Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Enigma that is Brandon Morrow

On December 16th, 2009, the Blue Jays made a franchise changing decision by dealing Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies. During the negotiations, the Phillies were attempting to trade their then-ace, Cliff Lee, and the Mariners were showing a lot of interest. As news of the trade negotiations slowly leaked, fans heard countless names and hypothetical exchanges tossed in the air by media outlets, including a possible three-way trade between Toronto, Philadelphia, and Seattle, where Halladay would go to the Phillies, Lee would go to the Mariners, and a combination of Philadelphia and Seattle prospects would come to Toronto. It made sense at the time, given Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr's reluctance to include Kyle Drabek in the deal. Perhaps the Blue Jays would receive their future ace from Seattle.

The messageboards erupted in a fury of trade proposals, with names such as Michael Saunders, Carlos Triunfel, and that guy Brandon Morrow being imagined in Blue Jays uniforms. A few hours later, the trade had been completed, and Seattle and Toronto made no exchanges. The Blue Jays sent Halladay to the Phillies for a prospect package, and the Phillies sent Lee to the Mariners in exchange for a prospect package to resupply their minor leagues. While Toronto did not receive any Seattle players in the Halladay trade, Alex Anthopolous and Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik were evidently laying down groundwork on another trade during negotiations. Exactly one week later, Toronto sent flame throwing Hawaiian Brandon League and minor league outfielder Johermyn Chavez to the Mariners for former 5th overall pick Brandon Morrow. While the Roy Halladay deal rightfully garnered a lot of attention, the Brandon Morrow trade could prove to be just as impactful, making December 2009 perhaps the most important month in Blue Jays history over the past 15 years.

When he was with Seattle, to say Brandon Morrow was misused would be an understatement. Despite being drafted in June 2006, Morrow debuted in the major leagues in April 2007 -- only 10 months later -- with a grand total of 16 minor league innings under his belt. The Mariners chose to use him as a reliever to begin his career, and while the 4.12 ERA looks decent for a rookie, his 1.67 WHIP and 5.12 xFIP suggest he was lucky to maintain that acceptable ERA.

In 2008, his second full year since being drafted, the chaos began, with Morrow splitting the season between the minor and major leagues. He made 6 relief appearances with Double-A, 5 starts and 1 relief appearance with Triple-A, and 5 starts and 40 relief appearances in Seattle -- totalling 10 starts and 47 relief appearances. The results improved, but walks were still a significant issue for Morrow. In his 95.1 total innings across the three levels, Morrow walked 51 batters, for a sub-par 4.81 BB/9. He finished 24 games for Seattle (10 of which went for saves), which led many to believe Morrow might be the anchor in Seattle's bullpen for years to come.

Morrow's future became even more turbid with the onset of the 2009, as it became clear that Seattle had no idea what to do with their former first round pick. He had performed well as a reliever, but when a 5th overall pick is used on a pitcher, it is expected that they will be a starter in the long-term. Morrow began the year in Seattle, working once again as a fireman in the back of the bullpen. He made 16 relief appearances, 9 of which were to finish a game, 6 of which went for saves. Things went downhill in May, when Morrow pitched to a 10.38 ERA and 2.54 WHIP. Less than half way through the year, the Seattle brain trust flip-flopped on their spring stance, instead deciding it was time for Morrow to develop as a starter. They sent him back down to Triple-A Tacoma to build up a starter's arm strength, where he made 10 starts with mixed results. In late summer, Morrow was promoted back up to Seattle, this time pitching in a rotation that included Felix Hernandez, and Erik Bedard. Morrow flashed his top of the rotation potential during his September callup, particularly in his September 30th start against the division rival Oakland A's. Morrow went 8 shutout innings, allowing only 1 hit and 2 walks while striking out 9. In the winter of 2009, the aformentioned trade was consumated, with Morrow taking his talents to Toronto.

Years down the line, after he has retired, Morrow's time with Seattle may well be considered nothing more than the preface to his true career. From 2006 through the end of 2009, Morrow pitched a grand total of 299.1 innings. For comparison, the Blue Jays current starting rotation includes two other pitchers who, like Morrow, were drafted as college juniors in the first round of their drafts. The first, Ricky Romero, threw 415.2 innings in the minor leagues before finally debuting in Toronto. The second, Brett Cecil, pitched 217.1 innings in the minor leagues before making his debut, and another 93.1 in his first year with Toronto before establishing himself as more than a temp in 2010. Morrow's entire time with Seattle -- both in the minors and majors -- is roughly in the same ballpark as his new rotation mates minor league careers. This is why when Morrow was traded to Toronto and finally given the professional stability that every major league pitcher desires, I thought of him more as a rookie, not the 4th year guy he was in actuality. It was a new team, a new country, a clean slate, and a front office with foresight and direction.

The 2010 season was not an easy one for Morrow. Throughout spring training and the first couple months of the season, he and Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton had to work to undo three years worth of poor coaching. Unsurprinsingly, the in-game results were less than perfect, which caused many of the short sighted members of Toronto's fanbase to declare him a bust and the trade itself a failure. Morrow's season hit its lowest point on a bitingly cold, windy night in Fenway Park on the 10th of May. He recorded only 5 outs while giving up 6 earned runs on 3 hits and 6 walks, causing his season ERA to balloon to 6.69. An observant fan would have noticed that, in nearly every start of the entire first half of the season, Morrow had a slightly different delivery. He and Bruce Walton were constantly tweaking his wind-up, arm slot, and release point in an effort to find something that he would find comfortable but also provide results.

Eventually they settled upon a delivery somewhat reminiscent of AJ Burnett's, which included a short pause and turn of the hips at the peak of his windup. On May 30th, Morrow had an ERA of 6.00. He made 15 starts over the remainder of the year before being shut down due to an inning limit, and saw his ERA drop in 11 of those 15 starts, a marked improvement over the first 2 months of the season. The second half of his season was highlighted by his August 8th start at the Rogers Centre against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays. The Blue Jays won the game 1-0, with Morrow striking out 17 batters on the evening. Tampa's first (and only) hit came in the form of a chopper to the right side of the infield with 2 outs in the 9th inning, which Aaron Hill couldn't lasso. He finished the season with a 4.49 ERA, but his 3.16 FIP, 3.48 xFIP, and 10.95 K/9 showed he had the potential for much, much more.

Expectations were hightened entering Morrow's second year in Toronto, but they were quickly tempered by a bout of soreness in his pitching arm during spring training, an ailment which forced him to shut things down for a few weeks. Much like 2010, this year has been another up and down season for Morrow, but there have been two dramatic improvements over his first year in Toronto. First, the downs this season have been less severe than those he experienced in 2010. While he has struggled on occasion, there has never been any question as to whether or not he belongs in a major league starting rotation. Secondly, the lack of control that has plagued Morrow throughout his career has seen a significant improvement. After posting a combined 5.83 BB/9 in his big league time with Seattle, Morrow lowered his walk rate to 4.06 BB/9 in 2010. He has taken it a step further in 2011, lowering his BB/9 to a very respectable 3.34. His 3.10 FIP and 3.36 xFIP emphasize how well he has pitched overall. When put into context with his 2010 numbers (3.16 FIP, 3.48 xFIP), it is clear that Brandon Morrow has the potential to be a dominant starting pitcher in the major leagues.

While Morrow will receive a pass for 2011, the expectations will be raised once again for the 2012 season. For the first time in far too long, Toronto is on the verge of playoff contention, and 2012 could be the year in which the Blue Jays put their foot in the door. For that to happen, Toronto is going to need consistency from the roster, as well as for key players to finally live up to their potential. While guys like Colby Rasmus, Travis Snider, and Kyle Drabek are on that list, Brandon Morrow is most certainly at the top. After two full years of starting in the major leagues, it will be time for Morrow to show the world what kind of pitcher he is. His FIP numbers over the past two years (3.16, 3.10) are extremely similar to those of his fellow 2006 first round pick and 2-time NL Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum (3.15, 2.87), which displays the kind of limitless ceiling Brandon Morrow has. With Ricky Romero at his side to lead the Blue Jays rotation for years to come, it is time for Morrow to bring his ERA down to his FIP and xFIP range and break free of the "next AJ Burnett" label that far too many casual Blue Jays fans have laid upon him.

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