How Brandon Morrow went from hot stove afterthought to hot commodity

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Sunday, November 12, 2017

Brandon Morrow is a free agent, and some intriguing possibilities await him over the coming weeks. He's fresh off an impressive season in the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen, followed by a historic postseason that has awakened teams to the possibility that he could be closer material in 2018.

As Morrow recovers from his role as Los Angeles' October workhorse, the internet speculation and offseason projections drive home the realization that he has gone from a hot stove afterthought to a hot commodity.

It's a humbling and somewhat startling development. In December 2014, Morrow signed a $2.5 million contract with the San Diego Padres only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury after five starts. The Padres re-signed him to a minor league deal in 2015, and this year Morrow lingered on the market until January before agreeing to a minor league contract with Los Angeles. The Dodgers didn't summon him from Triple-A Oklahoma City until May 29, just days before an opt-out clause in his contract would have gone into effect.

Once Morrow arrived, he had a major impact. In 45 relief appearances, he recorded a 0.92 WHIP, 2.06 ERA and .194 batting average against while striking out 50 batters in 43 2/3 innings. Morrow logged a 15.9 percent swinging-strike percentage -- higher than Wade Davis (15.5), Sean Doolittle (15.4), Greg Holland (15.3) and Cody Allen (14.9), among other prominent back-end guys.

Now he gets to enjoy the fruits of his success. Along with Davis and Holland, he's one of the top three relief options on the market this winter.

"This will be my fourth year in a row being a free agent,'' Morrow said by phone this week. "But it's been two minor league contracts and sort of a 'pillow' deal in San Diego, so that's not exactly the same. There weren't a lot of teams knocking on my door. Hopefully, there will be some teams calling me in the first week this year.''

Morrow emerged asKenley Jansen's principal wingman in Los Angeles during the stretch drive and made news for his durability in October, tying Cleveland's Paul Assenmacher with 14 appearances in a single postseason, and joining Darold Knowles of the 1973 Oakland A's as the second pitcher to appear in all seven games of a World Series.

It was enough to give Morrow a sense of gratification until he hopped in the car and drove from Southern California to his home in Arizona haunted by the realization that the Dodgers fell one game short of their ultimate goal.

"It's a weird feeling,'' Morrow said. "There are conflicting emotions. I would like to be proud of it, but it came in a losing effort, so it's kind of got that asterisk next to it. Maybe down the road, the pain of losing will go away and I can hang my hat on that and it will soften the blow.''

Morrow, 33, has carried around some big expectations since signing for a $2.45 million bonus out of the University of California in the 2006 MLB first-year player draft. Seattle selected him with the fifth overall pick -- ahead of Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer.

Morrow took an expedited route to the majors, making his debut in the Seattle bullpen in 2007 with only 16 minor league innings on his résumé. Over the next three seasons, he alternately relieved and started for the Mariners while seeking his professional niche.

"He's always had great stuff,'' said Benny Looper, Seattle's vice president of player development and scouting through 2008. "It might have been a disservice on our part to start and relieve him, because we couldn't decide what his best role was. Hindsight is always 20/20. But in retrospect, it might have been better for him to pick one or the other rather than flop him back and forth. I'm just glad it's working out all right in the end.''

The Mariners traded Morrow to Toronto in 2009, and he showed some flashes of brilliance, most notably with a 17-strikeout, complete-game one-hitter against the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010 that merited one of 13 "game scores'' of 100 or better in MLB history over nine innings. Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Kerry Wood, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Matt Cain and Scherzer are the only other pitchers to have achieved that distinction.

Morrow navigated the early challenges of pitching with Type 1 diabetes, but something else invariably cropped up along the way. During his time with the Blue Jays, Morrow landed on the disabled list because of maladies ranging from a strained rib cage to an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm to a torn tendon sheath in his index finger.

The ultimate what-now moment came in December 2015, when Morrow was coming off a shoulder cleanup with San Diego and contracted a case of Valley Fever, a fungal infection of the lungs.

"That was the straw that almost broke the camel's back,'' Morrow said. "I didn't ever contemplate quitting or retiring. But I was rehabbing from surgery, and I finally got to toss the ball 60 feet, and then I got crushed by Valley Fever and spent a month in bed doing nothing. I was like, 'What am I supposed to do now?' I went into spring training on a minor league deal, and I was down 25 pounds from the year before and feeling like garbage. That was probably the low point, because it was not baseball-related.''

Mark Prior, the Padres' minor league pitching coordinator, suggested that Morrow might benefit from a move to the bullpen, where his stuff could play up in more limited exposures. Morrow dipped his toe in the water with San Diego in 2016, and this year his 98 mph fastball, 92 mph cutter and 89 mph slider made for a lethal combination in Los Angeles.

Morrow's biggest moment of regret in the postseason might have been a product of caring too much. Manager Dave Roberts planned to give Morrow the night off inGame 5 of the World Series but went to him in desperation after Kershaw and Kenta Maeda failed to hold early leads over Houston. Morrow entered with slightly diminished velocity and was pounded for four runs on six pitches in a 13-12 Dodgers loss.

After the game, Morrow said it was "selfish'' to volunteer to pitch when he wasn't at his best. A week later, he was still trying to process the circumstances.

"You get anxious seeing a lead evaporate like that and you want to help,'' Morrow said. "I was feeling pretty good at the time, and I made myself available, for sure. I was regretful afterward because we have a really good bullpen, and we had other guys down there who could have gotten the job done. That's what I was regretful about -- not trying to step up and take the ball.''

Teams that view Morrow as a potential closer will have to assess his durability and decide whether he'll be able to handle pitching three or four days in a row, should it come to that. But several clubs have looked at his stuff and his makeup and filed him under "intriguing.''

Agent Joel Wolfe has grown accustomed to scrambling to find Morrow jobs in recent years, but he has received enough feelers to know that some clubs are open to the idea of Morrow as a closer. Morrow comes across as soft-spoken and introspective, but that mellow exterior masks a competitive drive that impressed the scouts way back in his college days.

"He's so even-keeled and levelheaded,'' Wolfe said. "If you were going to assemble a closer like Frankenstein, in a laboratory, I don't know what else you would add. When he's getting ready for a game, he has ice water in [his] veins. A lot of that is because of his experiences and what he's been through.''

Of all the pitchers in that stacked 2006 draft class, Miller looks like the best comparison. For years, Miller was perceived as an underachiever as a starter. He successfully made the transition to the bullpen with Boston in 2012, signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the New York Yankees in December 2014 and took his profile to a different level with Cleveland in the 2016 postseason.

"There are guys who don't pan out for some reason in the rotation and might take a different route on how to maximize their abilities,'' Morrow said. "He laid out a really good blueprint for some of us to follow.''

As the pain of the World Series dissipates, Morrow will gradually turn his attention to his destination in 2018 and beyond. This winter, for the first time, he'll be the one calling the shots.