The Seattle Mariners picked Brandon Morrow fifth in the first round of the 2006 draft out of Cal. Within the first round, he was selected after Evan Longoria and before Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Tim Lincecum and Andrew Miller. Despite the fact that Morrow was a college player, he was raw, only establishing himself as a permanent part of the Bears’ rotation during his final year in college ball. A 6-foot-3 right-hander, he combined a high-90s fastball with two secondary offerings that projected as plus pitches.
Entering the 2007 season, the contending Mariners decided that Morrow’s immediate value as a reliever was worth more to them than his development as a starter in the minor leagues. He debuted in the first week of April 2007 with one inning of relief, less than a year after he was drafted. He ended up throwing 63 1/3 innings with a 4.12 ERA, a 1.67 WHIP, 66 strikeouts and 50 walks. He missed a lot of bats, but he missed the strike zone a lot, too.
In 2008, the Mariners started bouncing Morrow between the bullpen and the rotation. Once they started, they couldn’t stop for as long as he was in their organization. He opened the 2008 season in the bullpen but was quietly stretched out toward the end of the 2008 season. Morrow made five starts down the stretch with an eye toward spending the 2009 season as a starter. Seattle changed course that offseason, however, naming Morrow their closer coming out of Spring Training in 2009.
After struggling as the closer early on, Morrow was sent to the minors to get stretched out and return as a starter. He made 10 starts and ended the season with a decent number of strikeouts but way too many walks, reminiscent of his rookie season. In December 2009, the Mariners finally decided to stop giving Morrow the Joba Chamberlain yo-yo treatment and traded him to Toronto for Johermyn Chavez and Brandon League.
The Blue Jays stopped shuttling Morrow between the bullpen and the rotation, making him a starter and sticking with that decision over the next few seasons. It’s probably not a coincidence that Morrow had the best three seasons of his career from 2010 through 2012. He established a career high in innings, with 179 1/3, and in strikeouts, with 203, in 2011, looking as though he was on his way to becoming the pitcher that the Mariners had selected with the fifth overall pick several years earlier.
Morrow had a 2.96 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP in 2012, personal bests in both categories at that point in his career. His stellar summer was cut short by an oblique injury, however, limiting him to 124 2/3 innings. Unfortunately, his next few seasons were similar, cut short by a series of injuries that limited him to 54 1/3 innings in 2013, and 33 1/3 in 2014 before he for San Diego. The move did nothing to break him out of the seemingly endless cycle of injuries and rehab as he managed to throw just 33 innings in 2015 and 16 in 2016. The ailments included shoulder problems, a torn tendon sheath in his right index finger, and an entrapped radial nerve. It didn’t seem like he would be able to throw quality innings in meaningful quantities in the majors again.
What Went Right in 2017
The main thing that went right for Morrow in 2017 was that he stayed healthy. He threw 59 2/3 innings total, all in relief, with all but 16 innings coming with the big-league club—thanks to the Dodgers’ creative roster-management techniques that shuttled him to and from Triple-A. His four-seam fastball averaged 97.9 MPH in 2017, a significant improvement over his 94.6 mark in 2015 and his 94.7 mark in 2016.
He pitched very well in the majors, posting a 2.06 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP with 50 strikeouts and nine walks as a part of the bridge to Kenley Jansen. By the end of the season, he sat near the top of the setup depth chart in Los Angeles. He pitched in each of the first three games of the NLCS, throwing 3 2/3 scoreless innings with four strikeouts as one of manager Dave Roberts’ most-trusted options.
What Went Wrong in 2017
Not much went wrong. In light of his checkered injury history, and the fact that he was signed by Los Angeles as a minor-league free agent in January, 40-plus innings of well-above-average setup work for the best team in baseball has to be considered a success. Morrow’s age, health history and outstanding performance as a high-leverage reliever all but guarantee that his days as a starting pitcher are over, but that shouldn’t be counted as a thing that went wrong. Rather, it’s a pragmatic decision based on his age, the thickness of his medical file and his newfound success as a late-inning strikeout artist.
What to Expect in 2018
Hopefully, the veteran righty will be able to carry his 2017 success into 2018. Entering his age-33 season with a history of lengthy DL stints, sustaining his current level of performance is far from guaranteed. He always has had strikeout stuff and has finally found a role that seems to suit him. If he can avoid a long stint on the DL, he should be a top-tier reliever with strikeouts and good rate stats. Unfortunately, ifs don’t come much bigger than that one.
The Great Beyond
The error bars on what to expect from Morrow beyond 2018 couldn’t be much wider. He could be a poor man’s Andrew Miller, completely out of baseball, or anything in between. Morrow probably would be quite happy with two or three one-year contracts along the lines of the $4 million deal that Joe Blanton got in 2017 after re-inventing himself as a late-inning reliever with the Dodgers. Betting on pitchers in their mid-30s with a long history of arm trouble carries a lot of risk. It’s fair to say, though, that as long as he’s still throwing his four-seamer in the high-90s, he’ll have plenty of opportunities.