Thursday, December 24, 2009

Three things about misgivings with the Brandon Morrow trade

A response to USSM's misgivings on the Mariners trade of Brandon Morrow to Toronto for fireballing reliever Brandon League and minor league slugger Yohermyn Chavez (and I single them out since they tend to speak for a larger audience of analysts and readers):

Now, three points:

1. "No one knows how Brandon Morrow is going to develop." Yes, and you could say that about every other prospect in the history of MLB player development. Some players have better chances than others, and at this point, Brandon Morrow's been jerked around so much, fallen into enough negative habits (or moreso falling further into existing negative habits) etc. that his chances of success are somewhat lower than other pitchers his age with his makeup, let alone lower than other supposed top pitching prospects with a good heater. To say that the trade isn't kosher because of the non-zero chance that Brandon Morrow may succeed is to say that every trade you've ever made of a prospect for a more established player with a lower ceiling (like Brandon League) isn't kosher. Making such a deal is a neat phenomenon called "risk". You take the risk that Morrow may self actualize despite every flaw he's ever shown you and despite your flaws (and the resulting setbacks) in developing him.

Every deal is a bet that the player(s) you acquire will help you more than the player(s) you deal away will help another team. Every deal. The Mariners took the same risk with Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont and Juan Carlos Ramirez in thinking Cliff Lee and the compensation we get when he walks after next year will help us more. If you're okay with making trades, you have to accept that you don't know if the player you're dealing away is going to turn out great or not. That's part of the package.

2. Hey, wait a minute Dave, didn't you already give a few reasons why Morrow's chances at greatness were dim, expressing doubt on several occasions like this one?

By the way, for those interested, here’s the all-time list of pitchers who accumulated at least 150 innings before age 25 and had a BB/9 of 5.5 or higher at that point in their career. Morrow’s is 5.83 right now, by the way.

61 pitchers on the list. The successes – Nolan Ryan, Johnny Van Der Meer, Lefty Grove, and J.R. Richard if you ignore the fact that his career was over at age 30.

That’s it. There are a bunch of Bobby Witt/Jason Bere/Seth McClung/Daniel Cabrera types, who just never figured it out.

4 out of 60. Do you like those odds?

Why handwring at all about what history shows us is roughly a 15 to 1 longshot, especially a player that you on several occasions have shown is becoming more and more of a longshot to regularly contribute as a starting pitcher?

Is it because we burned the #5 pick in the 2006 draft on him, and there's a perceived need to maximize the return on a bad investment (and it was: Tim Lincecum, Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw and a ton of other better players were on the board)? Look, the pick is gone. We're not getting it back. Morrow's value in the present is not what it was in June 2006. You ought to evaluate him on what he is now, on the chances of the present player's success as a big league pitcher... not the chances of a top 10 draft pick at the time the player is picked.

The team blew it with Morrow's development (and to be fair Dave called that). It's not Z's fault that the current product is a 25 year old, fairly flawed 1.5 pitch pitcher with poor control that, three years later, still has a long way to go before he can be even a consistent starter, let alone a good one, let alone a great one.

3. All that said, pretty much this entire saga of angst can be pinpointed to the idea that Brandon Morrow is a valuable player that can command a Type A player's sort of return. But even Dave himself pointed out that Morrow is a lot closer to Daniel Cabrera or Seth McClung than Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum or even John Danks. He might have had that sort of potential (allegedly) in 2006, but in 2009 he's just an overthrowing fireballer with little command of any of his pitches, not much of a secondary pitch selection, diabetes, and hints of an attitude to boot.

And it's tough to fathom that any of the other 29 MLB general managers share such an inflated sentiment of Brandon Morrow's abilities, and are willing or able (I'm sure the Astros or Royals love him but what could they possibly send the Mariners of value, let alone be willing to send?) to dispense a greater return than Brandon League and Yohermyn Chavez. Maybe Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik didn't so much think lightly of Brandon Morrow (as many including Dave Cameron speculate) as he and his front office team did their research and realized that this was the balance between the value Brandon Morrow had, and the value they were able to get another team to dispense in return (because remember, not every team is willing to deal for Morrow, nor does every team have enough in their organization they're willing or able to offer in return).

There's a general trend, not necessarily in analysis circles as much as in general among informed fans, towards valuing a top domestic MLB draft pick based on where he was selected in the draft, rather than what he actually is as a player. Living in the past is what leads you to wish it was 1995 again and re-sign a broken down 39 year old DH with knee problems after an injury plagued 214/324/411 season.

Here are all the #5 overall picks in the history of the June amateur draft, dating back to 1965, 45 years of picks. 24 were pitchers. 14 made it to the Majors (though to be fair Matthew Hobgood was just drafted this year and needs time). Of those 14, only nine pitched in more than 30 games (a benchmark selected because starters make roughly 30 starts in a single season, eliminating the guys with the briefest of stays). And one of those nine, Kurt Miller, only pitched in 44 career MLB games before hanging it up.

Only two of the remaining eight pitchers won more than 100 career games: Jack McDowell and Doc Gooden. Jack was an effective veteran forgotten to the annals of time (and thanks for serving up The Double, Jack ;P ), and Doc might have been greater if he didn't love the moon powder. Of the career relievers with more than 100 appearances (Morrow, journeyman Kent Mercker, Andy Hawkins (famous for throwing a no-hitter for a crappy Yankees team and still losing that game 4-0) and failed Padres starter Bob Owchinko of the 1970's), only Mercker could say he was anything better than a fungible, mediocre reliever, and only because he pitched during the Roids Era when league ERAs spiked across the board. None of them were shutdown closers: Mercker leads them all with 25 career saves in 18 seasons. None of them were shutdown anything: Only Morrow posted a career ERA under 4.00, and aside from Mercker the others pitched during an era where the average pitcher could run an ERA in the 3's.

So we're not talking about a draft pick position that produces pitching greatness. Only two of the 24 selected in history at that spot turned out being anything resembling great over their careers. And all due respect, but I don't consider McDowell or Gooden anything close to Hall of Fame material. Maybe All Stars once or twice in their best years, but certainly not HOFers. So to think you're pissing away gold with Morrow because of the draft pick investment made in him isn't really fair. You're talking about what history's shown us to be no less than a 12 to 1 shot.

Whether or not the odds are on a #5 pick's side... where Morrow was drafted in the past is immaterial in the present. Bill Bavasi blew the money on the signing bonus and he burned the pick. That's gone. Winning is about focusing on what you have in the present and how it can help you in the future, or how acquisitions can help you in the future. It is not about focusing on the past, except to look at a player's track record to help assess said present and future.

Now back to the present. In June 2006, Brandon Morrow was one of the top 10-20 amateur players in college baseball, out of Cal (though even then he never made more than 14 starts in an NCAA season). Today, he is a back-end starter, maybe (with some work), and definitely a functional reliever with a hot fastball that can sit 93-95 when starting and can hit 101 when relieving (though granted the latter number comes from Morrow rearing back and throwing the ball as hard as he can at the plate instead of actually pitching).

As far as I'm concerned, we're sending away Matt Thornton or Daniel Cabrera, and we got back a young, halfway decent reliever with similar problems and a talented but undisciplined 20 year old hitter that might be somebody if he can learn to take a pitch.

All that said, if Brandon Morrow gives the Blue Jays a bunch of 180-200 inning seasons, cuts down on his walks, learns to command three pitches, wins 15 games a year and becomes an effective regular in that Jays rotation or any rotation over an uninterrupted 7-10 year period, without any serious or recurring health issues, I will frankly be shocked.

A bonus item: Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik may say publically this deal had nothing to do with any notion of "completing" the Halladay/Lee and you may believe him, but public figures say things to the public all the time that turns out not to be true. If you seriously trust the word of a public statement, you are either gullible or showing a patronizingly willful ignorance. To be fair, I don't think Dave really does think this but is simply saying it to maintain good graces: At this point, with the relationship he's developed with the Mariners front office (which BTW do read USSM regularly), I think Dave realizes he has to make political statements on his blog like 'I believe everything our GM says to the media' and keep his disagreements penned in to the given surface logic of the personnel decisions, in order to not piss off the front office and risk losing his connections. Among other reasons, as point #1 indicated Dave isn't a big fan of taking risks, and he has the advantage of knowing his loyal-to-a-fault readership will never call him on it.

All that said, the truth as usual is probably somewhere in the middle: Z and Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos may have contacted each other during the Halladay/Lee negotiations and agreed to shake on the Halladay/Lee deal provided this separate deal. Because otherwise, why the hell would the Jays send off their no-doubt franchise player for three good but not great prospects? I don't know much about Alex Anthopoulos but I'm pretty sure he's not that stupid. Z and Anthopoulos making this deal themselves was probably what it took to get Anthopoulos to agree to the Halladay/Lee deal that gave the M's Cliff Lee, and I'm sure Z knew this when negotiating the Morrow deal.


  1. I think it's probably pretty simple about Morrow.... People remember the one-hitter he spun against the Yankees in late '08 (one of the more fun TV-baseball experiences I've had, liveblogging with lookoutlanding) and think that he could do that again in the same way we were all frustrated that Felix didn't win Cy Youngs after his September call-up.

    Some people see one or two games and completely overvalue them (see Bill Bavasi/Jeff Weaver or Jerrod Washburn), but for the most part GMs are getting smarter and looking at the bigger picture.

    I can't help but wonder if the M's front office felt that Morrow wasn't helping them build a kind of team-first attitude they want (see March 2009), so they wanted him out.

    Overall, it doesn't seem like a big-deal trade, but the upside of the deal is mostly on the Jays' side of things. Sure, the M's picked up the low-minor league Chavez, but it's way too early to know if he's going to develop. I'm not particularly excited or depressed by the move.

    In terms of politics with the front office, I recall reading "Veeck as in Wreck," in which Bill Veeck wrote about how he occasionally got slammed in the press but still had really good relationships with the press in St. Louis in regards to the Browns. Dave Cameron and others also had ins with the Bavasi regime, even though they openly questioned Bavasi's moves and comments all the time. I'm not sure the politics angle is a big deal.

  2. It's not a big deal in the big picture, but it did spawn the USSM piece... whereas if you take Z's offering as lip service and accept that the deal was in some part a byproduct of the Lee/Halladay trade, there's far less handwringing and, thus, no need to write such a treatise on why the deal is bad, because in light of the precedent Halladay/Lee deal it really isn't whether punting Morrow is bad or not.

    It's worth bringing up because Dave gives credit to a Jack Z statement that was clearly just P/R fluff to shut people up and keep Bud Selig off his back.