As everyone who has watched the last few weeks of baseball knows, a major reason for the success of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 was the bullpen. Veteran right-hander Brandon Morrow is a key component of the relief corps. A reader asked me a few days ago to write a Prospect Retrospective for Morrow, so here it is.
A pitcher at the University of California, Morrow showed excellent stuff but was hampered by poor command during his 2004 freshman (6.07 ERA, 18/19 K/BB in 30 innings) and 2005 sophomore (9.36, 25/20 in 25 innings) campaigns. However, in the summer of 2005 he had an excellent run through the Cape Cod League (1.84, 24/9 K/BB in 15 innings) and maintained the progress during his junior season (2.05, 97/39 K/BB in 97 innings).
This pushed him towards the top of the 20016 draft, where he was selected fifth-overall by the Seattle Mariners. He posted a 2.25 ERA in 16 innings in his pro debut between rookie ball and the California League with a 17/9 K/BB.
I wrote this report for him entering 2007:
The fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft, University of California right-hander Brandon Morrow is intriguing for several reasons. His draft position, obviously. His 92-96 MPH fastball (clocked as high as 99 at least once). His slider. His splitter that he uses like a changeup. His improving control. And the fact that he’s a diabetic is also interesting, although he has it under control. Morrow had one of the two or three best arms available in the draft class, so while he received less attention than some of the other college arms available, this was not an overdraft. Morrow needs a better straight changeup, and there’s some concern about his durability, due to the diabetes as well as a sore arm that limited his innings late in the season, although the latter is not supposed to be a serious issue. I really like his ceiling, but he may need a little bit more development time than some college aces. Grade B+
Entering the spring of 2007 the general assumption was that Morrow would head to Double-A to build up his durability and sharpen his command.
That’s not what happened.
He looked great in spring training, great enough to earn a job in the Seattle bullpen with hardly any professional experience. Results were mixed: 4.12 in 63 innings, with 66 strikeouts but also 50 walks. His stuff was quite impressive but his command was troublesome, hardly unexpected given the situation. This of course cost him his rookie eligibility so there were no more prospect reports.
He improved in 2008 and saw some action as a closer, collecting 10 saves with a 3.34 ERA in 65 innings and a 74/35 K/BB. The Mariners converted him back to the starting role in 2009 but the results (4.39 in 70 innings, 63/44 K/BB) didn’t convince them to make him a key component for the future. He spent some time on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis and there was still concern about diabetes management.
Morrow was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in December 2009 for Brandon League. The Jays committed to him as a starter and he performed pretty well, posting a 4.49 ERA in 146 innings with a 178/66 K/BB. There were still some command issues but the strikeout rate was promising and he had several dominant outings, notably a 17-strikeout one-hitter on August 8th against the Tampa Bay Rays. He posted a 3.6 fWAR.
His 2011 season was similar: many dominant outings but still some consistency issues, leading to an 11-11 record, 4.72 ERA in 179 innings but with 203 strikeouts (and 69 walks) and a 3.2 fWAR.
Morrow hit his peak as a starter in 2012, his ERA dropping to 2.96 in 125 innings with a 108/41 K/BB. His velocity was down a bit from earlier in his career but improved command made up for this. Unfortunately he missed several weeks with a strained oblique muscle, limiting him to 2.4 fWAR.
The durability concern finally caught up with him in a big way in 2013, with nerve damage in his throwing arm limiting him to 54 innings and cutting drastically into his effectiveness (5.63 ERA). More physical problems (this time a torn tendon in his pitching hand) hampered him in 2014 and again he was ineffective (5.67 ERA in 33 innings). The Jays declined his contract option.
Morrow moved on to the San Diego Padres for 2015 where he was very effective over five starts in April (2.73 in 33 innings, 23/7 K/BB) but missed the bulk of the season after going down with a shoulder injury in May. He recovered well enough from surgery to throw 16 effective innings out of the Padres bullpen in 2016 (1.69 ERA, 8/3 K/BB) but didn’t figure into the long-term plan.
The Dodgers signed him to a minor league contract for 2017. Despite a 7.20 ERA in 20 innings for Triple-A Oklahoma City the Dodgers called him up on June 21st to prevent him from exercising a contract clause that would force the team to put him on waivers. As you know, this turned out to be a good move as he’s done some of the best pitching of his career over the last four months., with a 2.06 ERA in 44 innings with a 50/9 K/BB.
In retrospect, moving him to the bullpen permanently seems like something that should have been done five years ago. He throws harder and has an easier time keeping his command in gear out of the pen, plus he was never able to stay healthy for a full season as a starter.
That said, when you have a guy who has a four-pitch arsenal, who can throw 17-whiff one-hitters and strikes out 203 men in just 179 innings, it is awfully tempting to keep running him out there as a starter.
Prospect-wise, Morrow showed impressive stuff in college and was good enough to earn a major league job in less than a year, well ahead of schedule. He was rushed, although the command and health issues which slowed his progress may have occurred even if the Mariners had adopted a more traditional development track.