There have been few bright spots during the Seattle Mariners' 2008 season, but one of them has to be the emergence of pitcher Brandon Morrow. The fireballer has been the gem of the Mariners system since being selected No. 5 overall in the 2006 draft. The organization projected him as a front-of-the-rotation starter when they drafted him ahead of current San Francisco Giants phenom Tim Lincecum.
An impressive showing in the low minor league levels propelled Morrow to the majors last year, but he walked 50 batters in 63 1/3 innings. In October, the Mariners said Morrow would be a starter in '08, but that plan stalled when the team acquired starter Carlos Silva via free agency and talented but brittle lefty Erik Bedard via trade. The departure of valuable setup man George Sherrill (Baltimore Orioles) in the Bedard deal offered further impetus to keep Morrow in the 'pen for '08.
The M's were lucky to have him there when closer J.J. Putz hit the disabled list on two separate occasions with ribcage and elbow ailments. Morrow filled in admirably as their closer, locking down 10 saves in 12 chances with a combined 1.66 ERA in June and July. He also struck out 47 in 36 2/3 innings as a reliever.
Putz returned July 20 and eventually transitioned back into the closer role despite some command problems and ongoing health issues. This allowed the Mariners to send Morrow down to Triple-A Tacoma in early August to stretch out his arm with the intention of starting him; they felt this was the best time for the move because they were out of playoff contention.
The 24-year-old returned to the big club, and the Mariners saw early returns as Morrow flirted with a no-hitter against the New York Yankees in his first career major league start Friday, Sept. 5. Fantasy baseball owners rushed out to acquire him during and after his shot at history, but should they have the same urgency in 2009 fantasy baseball drafts?
In 2007, Morrow brought his high-90s fastball along to his major league debut with the Mariners at age 22; he made 60 relief appearances that year, fanning 66 in 63 1/3 innings while also walking 50. His mission this year was to cut down on the free passes, and he started toward that goal by walking just eight batters in 36 frames in the Venezuelan Winter League.
However, he battled shoulder soreness this spring and didn't join the M's until mid-April. He pitched well right out of the gate and went 21 straight appearances from May 14 to July 9 without allowing an earned run. Morrow has a 1.42 ERA in 44 1/3 innings this year, culminating with his 7 2/3-inning gem against the Yankees in which he allowed one run on one hit and walked three while fanning eight.
He added finesse to his speed, developing a slider and a split-finger fastball this year before fashioning a curveball during his August trip to Tacoma. Morrow's command over his breaking balls has allowed him to throw fewer fastballs; his heat isn't a crutch anymore.
Will he hold up?
The primary concern with Morrow's 2009 role is how he will handle a starter's innings total. The righty did not exceed 82 pitches in any outing when he was increasing his workload at Tacoma, but he was a starter in his final year of attending the University of California-Berkeley.
In his final year with the Golden Bears, he started 14 games while compiling a 7-4 record with a 2.05 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and an average of 9.03 strikeouts per nine innings. Before pitching at Tacoma this year, he averaged 9.74 whiffs per nine in 23 1/3 innings (14 appearances, five starts) in three combined minor league levels.
Improved control in '08 has given him 55 strikeouts compared to 18 walks for Seattle. The average of 3.06 strikeouts per walk is a promising fantasy stat that indicates success as a starter, chiefly instituted within the LIMA plan (Low Investment Mound Aces). This strategy is usually employed to find promising starters either for low prices in auctions or in the late rounds of serpentine drafts; it's doubtful that Morrow will be ignored, though, given the hype surrounding him.
Still, Morrow presents a risk given the likelihood of an increased workload. His season high was set in '06 with 112 2/3 innings - representing work in his last year at Cal and two low-level minor league stops. However, he only started 19 of his 22 appearances that year.
One positive is that the M's let Morrow gain his footing as a starter in the minors instead of on-the-job training with the big club, like the Yankees did with pitcher Joba Chamberlain. Several former relievers, including Chamberlain and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Shaun Marcum, have encountered problems transitioning into the rotation this year as they missed significant time with arm problems.
Unlike Chamberlain, Morrow's windup is not too violent, and his clean arm angle produces less injury risk than Chamberlain's. Increased pitch counts and arm injuries aren't always connected, but while every pitcher develops at his own pace, it's something to consider when gauging where to draft Morrow next year.
Outside of phenom Felix Hernandez, the M's rotation has been disappointing. Bedard (shoulder) once again had his season cut short due to injury while Silva and Washburn continue to be uninspiring. The Mariners did move righty Miguel Batista to the bullpen, but Washburn is locked up through '09, and they're trapped with Silva until 2011. Seattle paid a steep price for Bedard, who still has talent when healthy. His only logical way out of Seattle would be through a trade.
Morrow could pitch his way into next year's rotation with a strong September, despite the small sample size. The Mariners have been looking to make him a starter, so it wouldn't be shocking to see them try everything they can to make it happen, whether it be eating fat contracts or selling off Bedard.
Fantasy baseball outlook
Morrow's strikeout rate could help fantasy teams catch up in the counting category this season, and he should be picked up in all formats.
Where do you draft Morrow next year? At this point, it's hard to justify taking him sooner than the late rounds of 12-team single-year fantasy baseball drafts. The potential is certainly there, but he's safer as a late pick to round out your staff, especially since he hasn't yet endured a full season as a starter.
Those in keeper leagues might be inclined to reach for him, and they might be forced to if he was not retained after this year. Avoid doing so. Morrow has ample talent, but don't overlook proven talent to get him. If you can grab him as the draft winds down, Morrow could be a steal.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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