What to do with Brandon Morrow
This has been a pretty boring spring, so far. Besides the Putz arm scare, there have been no injury problems of note, and besides Willie Bloomquist hitting like a man possessed, the performances have been pretty blase overall. Until last week, anyways.
That’s when Brandon Morrow showed up in Mesa with a 95 MPH fastball and a tight slider that made the heart of the Cubs order look stupid. I was highly impressed watching him, and I wasn’t alone, as Mike Hargrove used that performance as a launching point to begin publically lobbying for Morrow to make the team out of spring training. He’s continued to pitch well since that appearance, and Grover’s fondness for the kid isn’t getting any more private. After every outing, he makes it well known that he’d like to see the Mariners first round pick from last summer come north with the team as a reliever when camp ends.
While the Mariners are well known for rushing their kids through the system as quickly as possible, this certainly wasn’t the plan heading into March. Despite all the talk since the pick, the Mariners drafted Morrow as a starter, and he was ticketed for a rotation spot Double-A West Tennessee. The organization has always hoped that Morrow would develop into a starting pitcher, and he wasn’t drafted to be the closer of the future.
However, with Putz’s questionable availability for opening day and the organization short-sightedly creating a mediocre to bad bullpen behind him, Morrow suddenly looks like something of an answer to a legitimate problem on the 2007 squad. With guys like Mateo and Reitsma being handed the ball in the 7th and 8th innings, the Mariners lack a power arm who can be asked to get a strikeout in a key situation that isn’t a save possibility. Successful bullpens aren’t built around handing the ball to guys like Mateo and Reitsma in high leverage situations, so Hargrove has correctly identified the need for a legitimate quality arm to stick in front of J.J. Putz.
The question, then, becomes whether the Mariners should put the short term needs of the 2007 roster ahead of the long term needs of the franchise. Brandon Morrow, at some point in his career, needs to start some games in the minor leagues. His longest appearance in his professional career is three innings. He’s never had to go through the line-up a second time and make adjustments. He’s never had to pace himself to get through a professional game, knowing that there aren’t glaring weak spots in line-ups like there are in college. If you want Brandon Morrow to be a starter in the majors, then he has to be a starter in the minors, at some point, for at least a little while.
The question isn’t whether Morrow would be an effective major league reliever in 2007. It’s likely he would be. He’s got top shelf stuff, especially when he’s throwing max effort for 15-20 pitches, and relieving is the easiest job in baseball. The question is whether you’re willing to delay Brandon Morrow’s ascension to the rotation in order to patch a hole this year. For Mike Hargrove, whose job is on the line, it’s an easy answer. For Bill Bavasi, whose job description is to care for the franchise and not concentrate solely on winning games this year, it’s a tougher one. There is no obvious, easy answer here.
Personally, I’m torn. I want to see this team win, because I’m tired of finishing in last place, blogging about a team that has some upside but is forced to focus on the failures of its manager and the roster construction that left holes that could have easily been filled. I don’t want to see Ichiro leave. I don’t want to go through a summer of what-could-have-been as Doyle hits .320 for the Nationals while the Mariners struggle to find someone who can get on base with any kind of regularity. I want this team to win, and to win, they need a power right-handed setup guy to get to J.J. Putz. Brandon Morrow could legitimately be the answer to a problem that the team is going to have to address at some point.
But I also want the team to win in 2008, 2009, and 2010, and I think everyone will agree that those teams will be better if Brandon Morrow is throwing 100 pitches every five days than if he’s throwing 15 pitches every other day. The Mariners still have rotation holes to fill going forward, and most of the promising young arms in the system aren’t going to be ready for a few years. If the organization wants to fill those holes from within, Brandon Morrow is likely the best chance they’ll have.
While it’s pretty common for prospects to come up early as relievers and then move to the rotation, it isn’t common for those same pitchers to learn to how to pitch as professional starting pitchers in the major leagues. If Morrow is carried as a reliever this year, and then the team decides to shift him to the rotation for 2008, he’s going to have to learn on the job in front of 30,000 people. That’s not good player development. At some point, for his own best interest, Morrow needs to spend some period of weeks in the minors as a starting pitcher.
That either needs to happen this year or next year. If you carry him as a reliever this year and still intend to let him start at some point, you need to be prepared to have him begin 2008 in the minor leagues, regardless of how well he pitches out of the pen this year. And it’s nearly impossible to send a kid to the minors once he’s had success in the majors without creating all kinds of ill will with the player.
So, I can see both sides. I can see why Mike Hargrove wants Morrow on his staff, and I can see why Bill Bavasi should probably tell him that he can’t have him. Not yet, anyways. Morrow’s future as a starting pitcher is too valuable to this club to push back his timeframe on joining the rotation. Send the kid to West Tennessee and let him start for a month or two. If the team still needs a right handed power arm in June, give him a look.
If you carry him as a reliever on opening day, you may never have the chance to get him back to the minors. And asking him to learn how to be a starting pitcher at the major league level just isn’t fair to Brandon Morrow. The long term risk outweighs the short term rewards. Resist the temptation. It’s not worth it.