Where did the Mariners go wrong with Morrow?
RYAN DIVISH; The News Tribune
To sit and wonder where it all went wrong for Brandon Morrow and the Seattle Mariners is an exercise in frustration and a walk into the world of bad baseball decision-making.
Perhaps the first thing that went wrong was that the two were even paired together.
Of all the bad decisions made under Bill Bavasi – the Erik Bedard trade, the signing of Carlos Silva, the signing of Richie Sexson, the trade of Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez, the Kenji Johjima contract extension, Scott Spiezio, Carl Everett, Rich Aurilia ... well, you get the idea – the decision to draft Morrow with the fifth pick of the 2006 draft instead of Tim Lincecum ranks near the top.
Nothing about the pick made sense to those who covered the team, or to fans and folks around baseball.
On the day Morrow was selected, News Tribune columnist John McGrath wrote: “Still, the comparisons between Lincecum and Morrow will be made today, and they’ll be made when they sign their contracts, and they’ll be made as long as they throw pitches for a living.”
It’s safe to say Johnny Mac never quite knew how prophetic those words would be.
In the years that followed, any written word about Morrow in a story or blog post would elicit angry comments wondering how the Mariners could have passed on Lincecum. To make matters worse, Lincecum rocketed to stardom with the San Francisco Giants, only adding to the lamentations and complaints of Mariners fans.
Morrow knew it. He couldn’t run from it. A relatively quiet, laid-back kid from the Bay Area, he couldn’t escape the massive shadow of the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Lincecum. It was there in the Puget Sound area where Lincecum grew up. It was there when Morrow would go home to Santa Rosa to see his family.
Any time the name Lincecum was mentioned within earshot of Morrow, a pained look would come across his face, as if somebody was sticking a steel spike in his spine.
They were forever linked, and Morrow seemed likely to be forever in Lincecum’s shadow.
Still, to say the pick was a bad decision is a little unfair. Morrow was not and is not without talent. His right arm seems to have been touched by lightning, allowing him to throw fastballs at 98 to 99 mph with frightening ease and fluidity.
Maybe Morrow couldn’t keep pace with Lincecum’s prodigious rise to major league success as a starter, but big league success should still have come.
And yet it hasn’t.
And therein lay the greater issues. If it was a mistake to draft Morrow, far larger mistakes only followed with his handling. These were small-minded decisions made by men trying to keep their jobs.
It started innocently: Morrow pitched 16 innings of minor league baseball in 2006.
But in 2007, Morrow wowed then-Mariners manager Mike Hargrove during spring training, showing his electric fastball and dominating hitters. Hargrove made the inexplicable decision to keep Morrow on the big league roster.
“First, you think of what the club needs,” Hargrove said at the time, “then you look at what’s best for the kid, too. When you run across a talent this dynamic, it’s hard to see that pitching in the majors would set him back.”
Did the club really need an inexperienced kid who was going to be a set-up man, but wasn’t allowed to pitch on back-to-back days?
Was it best for the kid to be rushed to the big leagues with fewer than 20 innings of professional baseball experience, and that at the lowest level?
What does it say about Hargrove that he couldn’t see that it would set Morrow back?
It says he wasn’t looking past the one inning that he planned to use Morrow every three games.
What does it say about Bavasi that he didn’t step in and tell Hargrove that the growth of the team’s prized pitching prospect wasn’t to be stunted in a vain attempt to get a few extra wins?
Remember, the 2007 team wasn’t exactly ticketed for the World Series.
Obviously, Morrow couldn’t say no to the opportunity.
“I mean, they’re asking you to be a part of a major league baseball team,” he said. “ ... You can’t say no.”
And that began the flip-flopping and sloppy decision-making about Morrow and his role. He had a moderately successful 2007 season, appearing in 60 games, posting a 3-4 record with a 4.12 ERA, striking out 66 batters in 63 innings, but also walking 50.
After that season, when Hargrove had left and John McLaren had taken over, Morrow was ticketed for the Venezuelan winter leagues to begin the conversion to starter.
“I thought I really made a step,” he said. “I featured my off-speed pitches. I got into the routine and the mentality of being a starter. I had like a 2.2 or 2.3 ERA in seven or eight starts. I felt good.”
But in that same offseason, Bavasi signed Silva to a gargantuan and ludicrous $48 million contract, then gave up half the organization to get Bedard.
Morrow wanted to believe he’d still be allowed to compete for the rotation. Instead, McLaren informed him he’d be going back to the bullpen, rendering useless all his offseason work.
“I think that was the biggest blow,” he said. “I come out of Venezuela after pitching well and all ready to come into start and they sign Silva, trade for Bedard and I didn’t have a spot.”
Which leads to the question: Why not let Morrow at least compete for a spot in the rotation?
Going into that year, Felix Hernandez, Bedard, Jarrod Washburn and Silva all had spots. Morrow would have had to compete against Miguel Batista basically for the fifth spot.
Instead of letting Morrow compete for a job or sending him to the minors to continue the transition, McLaren wanted him in the bullpen. Once again, Bavasi never intervened.
By midseason, the Mariners had fallen apart. Morrow was being moved back to starting again. McLaren, before he was fired, foolishly tried to make the transition at the big league level.
There seemed to be some hope for 2009, especially after his near no-hitter against the Yankees.
But health issues during spring training limited Morrow’s progress and hopes of making the starting rotation. And in a panic to stay with the big league club, he asked to switch back to relieving and being the closer.
This mistake wasn’t quite as egregious as some in the past because David Aardsma wasn’t the proven commodity we know now.
But it was disaster. Morrow flopped as the closer and then later asked to go back to being a starter.
In the beginning, the Mariners didn’t seem to know what they wanted from Morrow, and now he no longer seemed to either. Morrow pitched three complete professional seasons – mostly at the big league level – and we’re only slightly closer to determining what kind of pitcher he can be than we were the day he was drafted.
“Looking back on it, it may not have been the greatest thing in the world for Brandon,” current general manager Jack Zduriencik said of the flip-flopping.
But Zduriencik isn’t to blame in all of this. The mistakes were made before he came.
Brandon Morrow is gone. And his legacy as a Mariner will be one of misguided handling from a previous regime that not only stunted his career, but the entire franchise.