The Cubs offseason appears to be taking its final shape. The will they or won’t they drama surrounding the top of the free agent starting pitcher class seems to be settling on Yu Darvish. It is an opportunity for the front office to make up for a rare miss. The Cubs came in a distant second or third in the initial bidding for Darvish. It is easy to imagine the front office being a bit gun shy after their own $50 million disappointment with Disuke Matsuzaka, and the Rangers have had an aggressive presence in Japan under Jon Daniels. Either way, the Cubs looked poise to make everyone a lot more comfortable with Tyler Chatwood being the fifth starter (though perhaps not happy with Mike Montgomery back into the bullpen where he has excelled). Anything can happen still, but the confidence level in the Cubs adding one more starter has to go up from the disappointing silence of the offseason.
The odds are high that the Cubs will add a starting pitcher and that that starting pitcher will take up most of the remaining budget, if the Cubs are indeed choosing to remain below the competitive balance tax threshold. The Cubs bullpen is set with the variety of low cost options battling out for the final spot at the end of the bulpen. Greg Holland is still available, but that door is likely closed once the final starter is added. And that means that Brandon Morrow is your closer to start 2018.
Closers are relievers and relievers are inherently fickle. Those that play fantasy baseball are well aware how infrequently one man holds that position for an entire year for a club. Brandon Morrow had an unbelievable five months in the Dodgers bullpen, but it was the first year that he achieved the level of dominance projected when he was drafted in the first round over a decade ago. A number of people have questioned the wisdom of investing such an important role in the modern game to such an untested arm. After all, Brandon Morrow has to do two things he has yet to do to hang onto the closer’s role for the length of his contract, pitch at an extremely high level and stay healthy.
It is clear that Brandon Morrow has never had a season like 2017 before, but I think there is an equally plausible scenario than 2017 being a fluke. Morrow was drafted fifth overall in 2006, and pitched all of 16 innings in the minors after signing with Seattle. He began 2007 pitching in the Seattle bullpen. Like many hard throwing youngsters, Morrow flashed great stuff with big strikeout numbers but also shaky command. Morrow’s strikeout rate was regularly over 10 K/9 but his walk rate was also elevated with it over 3 BB/9 every year as well. Morrow’s injury history didn’t help him to find his command, and he moved from Seattle to Toronto to San Diego. He struggled to be able to stay on the field, but something changed in San Diego. Here are his career numbers from Baseball Reference:
Since entering the National League, Morrow has posted walk rates below 2. His great stuff was sapped by injury and illness that prevented him from taking the field regularly. His strikeout rates show that, but also looking at his career velocity chart shows this as well.
The velocity trended up in Los Angeles. The command remained strong, and elite reliever Brandon Morrow was born.
This theory has as much empirical evidence to support as those wishing to caution Morrow as being a one year wonder. Morrow threw a mere 49 innings with San Diego, but that he found some command late in his career isn’t an unheard of accomplishment for a veteran pitcher. The track record of power pitchers developing late is a well worn trope in the game, and it is certainly a plausible development.
Brandon Morrow might falter as a reliever, but it isn’t as if the success he achieved in 2017 came out of nowhere. He posted several strong seasons between Seattle and Toronto. It might also be sacrilege to mention him in the same as Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout performance, but Morrow had one of the all time best pitched games that wasn't a no-hitter. The 17 strikeout jem showed why (even if it was wrong in hindsight) he was picked ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum in the 2006 draft. Morrow may have never pitched at the level shown in 2017, but it is hard to argue that it was completely unheralded either.
Health is a much trickier proposition. Anyone who makes their living hurling a baseball past hitters is a mere pitch away from being struck down, and Morrow is a textbook case study in the biggest predictor of injury is previous injury. Morrow doesn’t have a lot of mileage in his arm, but mostly because he has started and finished very few seasons healthy. The only way to alleviate concern of the heavy postseason use will be the velocity he shows in spring training and April. If healthy though Morrow should be a solid closer with a chance to establish him as an elite one.