My Philosophical Problem With The Deal
Not surprisingly, Jack threw water on my theory about the Morrow-League trade, stating outright that these deals were two separate, unrelated moves. I will take his word for it – he’s been honest enough as a GM to have earned that.
So, if we strike down my theory that this deal was an extension of the Lee trade and reject the notion that this is a setup for another, better deal (which I just find very unlikely), then the obvious conclusion is that the Mariners simply do not have much faith that Brandon Morrow will be an effective starting pitcher. This trade is essentially a bet against Morrow’s future value, with the team trading out the best case scenario (he succeeds as a starter) for a better probability at a lesser return.
If you believe that Morrow is a reliever, then preferring League makes a lot of sense. They both do the same thing well – throw really hard – but League does it with a sinker that is more effective than Morrow’s four seam fastball. League is a better reliever than Morrow. If you significantly discount or eliminate the possibility that Morrow will succeed as a starter, then this swap makes sense.
But that’s my problem with this. No one knows how Brandon Morrow is going to develop. He’s basically still a prospect, having been jerked around so many times that his development has been stunted significantly. We can try to make educated guesses about the likelihood of his success in the rotation, based on his pitch types, command, durability, and other assorted assessments. But, in the end, none of us know what is going to happen. He could flame out and never amount to anything. He could win multiple Cy Young Awards. He could end up anywhere in between.
This trade is a specific bet against Morrow’s development. In stock market terms, the M’s are shorting Brandon Morrow. Maybe they have enough information about him to believe that this is a good idea, but it’s a departure from the type of roster building that they’ve been successful with – giving themselves options and flexibility based on an unpredictable future.
Since Zduriencik got hired, the Mariners have made moves that do not require a specific opinion to be justified in order for the move to work. They’ve added players at prices that are relatively low compared to the potential return, so that even if the move doesn’t work, it was a gamble worth taking. They didn’t know that David Aardsma was going to take a step forward, but they put themselves in a position to let him do so without needing him to in order to justify giving up Fabian Williamson. The cost was so low that he could not work out and it wouldn’t hurt them. They gave themselves an opportunity, but a specific outcome was not necessary.
The same is true of almost every transaction the team has made under Zduriencik. Russ Branyan didn’t have to hit 30 home runs to earn his salary. Franklin Gutierrez didn’t have to be a +30 defensive center fielder to be worth giving up J.J. Putz. Cliff Lee doesn’t have to win the Cy Young to be worth a trio of okay prospects.
For this trade to be a good idea, though, Brandon Morrow has to fail as a starting pitcher. If he goes to Toronto and becomes a quality starting pitcher, you lose, no matter how well Brandon League pitches out of the bullpen. This time, the M’s are betting on a specific result to justify the trade.
This is what Bill Bavasi often did. In fact, this move reminds me a bit of the Rafael Soriano-Horacio Ramirez swap. The M’s were going to trade Soriano, come hell or high water, because they didn’t like his make-up and his history of arm problems. They expected his arm to fall off and so they shipped him off for a lesser player, believing that they’d be better off with something than nothing. Of course, League is far, far more talented than Ramirez, and this deal is a lot more justifiable than that debacle was, but the gamble against a talented pitcher is the same. The Mariners needed Soriano to break down for that deal to make sense, and the M’s need Morrow to fail as a starter for this one to make sense.
Betting on a specific outcome is not how this team was built. We cannot know the future, so the best way to build a team is to give yourself as many good options as possible, then react to what actually does happen. Jack has done this exceptionally well, which is why this move is so puzzling. The team has continually made moves where they took guys with question marks and gave them opportunities. This time, they took a guy with question marks and decided that he wasn’t worth an opportunity, selling for a price that essentially values him as a failure.
This move could work out for the M’s. I’m a known skeptic of Morrow’s abilities, and I believe there’s a pretty good chance his combination of health problems, lack of command, and problems getting LH hitters out will eventually land him back in the bullpen. That could certainly happen. That may even be the most likely outcome. But we don’t know that Morrow will fail as a starter, and this trade presupposes that knowledge. It needs that to happen for this deal to not look bad.
And whenever you put yourself in a position where you need a player to either completely succeed (or fail, in this case) in order to justify the acquisition, there’s a good chance that you’re taking on too much risk. In some cases, the reward might be worth the risk, as I think you can argue is the case with the Lee and Bradley deals. In this case, though, the reward is a relief pitcher. A good relief pitcher, but still, a relief pitcher.
That’s not much reward. If the M’s are right, they get a good arm out of the bullpen who struggles to throw strikes. If they’re wrong, they just gave up a young, power arm in a rotation that is not overflowing with young, power arms. Even if they believe they are right, the costs of being wrong are really high. They have to be right. And that makes this a deal that I just can’t be a fan of.