For most of the year, it's been hard not to notice the success Brandon Morrow's been having with Toronto, and certainly yesterday it was impossible to ignore what Morrow did against the Rays. Over nine innings and 137 pitches, Morrow turned in arguably the most dominant pitching performance of the summer, striking out more hitters through his first six frames than Carlos Silva whiffed all last season. It's August 9th and Brandon Morrow has the highest strikeout rate in baseball, and I think Mariner fans respond to this development with one of three attitudes:
- Support. Some fans are just happy to see an arm like Morrow's escape improper usage and blossom somewhere else.
- Spiteful derision. Other fans are annoyed that Morrow could be so damned annoying here and so damned good elsewhere, so they root for him to fail.
While Brandon Morrow's development is locally received in very different ways, however, without fail it causes everyone to reflect on the trade that sent him away in the first place. No matter what you think about Brandon Morrow's emergence as a capable starting pitcher, you, the Mariners fan, have, over the past 24 hours, given some thought as to what life would be like had we never dealt with the Jays.
Doing that, it's easy to be upset. I mean, Morrow leads all starting pitchers in strikeout rate. That's spectacular. Meanwhile, we've been subjected to the Brandon League Variety Hour, where by 'variety' I mean in terms of results since God knows there hasn't been any variety in his pitching style. Morrow's been great, League's been frustrating, and while everyone forgets that the M's also landed a decent prospect in Johermyn Chavez, he's no future superstar, and he definitely isn't good enough to swing the pendulum back towards the middle. Looking back, the M's got burned.
With that said, as much as some M's fans and many fans of other teams delight in ripping the team for the deal, it's important - and perhaps most important in circumstances such as these - to recall the context in which the trade was made. Remember first that Brandon League was exceptionally good in 2009. Remember second that the M's were preparing to make a run this season. Remember third that Brandon Morrow had shown little, if any, development. Remember fourth that Morrow struggled with arm soreness after starting. Remember fifth that Morrow had managed 71 strikeouts and and 49 walks over 15 starts with Seattle. And remember sixth that Morrow had demonstrated a certain lack of mental toughness.
This isn't to show that it was a great trade gone wrong, but rather to show that it was justifiable at the time. A number of smart people defended it. A number of smart people made it. It made some degree of sense. Sometimes people disagree with the notion that you can only judge a trade based on what you know at the time, since in theory front offices should have some inside information to which we're not privy, but evaluating based on what we know at the time is absolutely a more sensible approach than evaluating strictly in hindsight. We can't say the Mariners traded an ace for a mediocre reliever, because they didn't, and to suggest as much is dishonest.
Still, while blasting the M's based on how things have worked out is unfair, I do think it's worth viewing this trade as an opportunity to learn a lesson. And that lesson, to me, is this: talent always deserves chances.
For as long as he was here, Brandon Morrow's talent was obvious. Anybody who watched him pitch could see it. The big key was that he worked off of an excellent fastball. If you can miss bats with your fastball, then you're well on your way to being an effective big league starter. Almost everybody can miss bats with their offspeed stuff. If you can miss bats with the soft stuff you throw 40% of the time, you've got a chance to be good. If you can miss bats with the hard stuff you throw 60% of the time, you've got a chance to be great. Brandon Morrow has had a chance to be great from the day he was drafted.
Obviously, he was frustrating. Even when you separate him from his organizational mismanagement, he was frustrating. Between his indecisiveness, his health problems, and his lack of visible progress, he was forever the source of some discontent. However, you can work to make a guy less frustrating. You can't work to make a guy throw a high-90s fastball and a sharp, biting curve. Morrow, for all of his faults, was gifted. He was one of the most gifted raw talents this organization has ever had. And when you sit down and really think about it, a guy with that much natural ability should be given every opportunity to put things together.
We were kind of burned on this to a lesser degree with Matt Thornton, who shook off 89.2 lousy innings with the Mariners before turning into one of the better setup men in the world. That's what happens sometimes with a lefty who can throw 98. We all grew frustrated with Thornton, and justifiably so, but we were also perhaps a little hasty in bidding him farewell. We obviously got burned on Morrow. I don't know who could be next, but Greg Halman has the right blend of extraordinary talent and annoying results, so he's got a chance.
Talent is key. Talent should be given a long leash, and only with care should you exchange high-level talent for a more reliable lower ceiling. The best teams in baseball are built around stars. Stars are hard to find, and hard to afford. Development of stars, then, becomes critical for most, and star players develop from players with star potential. When you have a player with star potential, you should be wary of seeing him go. When you have a player with star potential, you should try like hell to help him along.
Morrow's success has generated the same response from some circles as we saw from Thornton. "Sure, he's doing well there, but he never would've done that well here." Maybe. Maybe not. This could be absolutely correct. But how many chances were they given? Was Morrow given enough of a chance? Was Thornton given enough of a chance? I do understand that Thornton was exchanged for Joe Borchard, an outfielder with a ton of ability of his own, but the M's were never going to give him a real opportunity, which is why he got six at bats in a month before getting dumped. Borchard didn't get a chance. And, because they traded him instead of keeping him on the roster over Jake Woods or Jeff Harris, you could argue that Thornton didn't get enough of a chance, either. Even after all of his walks and all of his meltdowns.
I'm not intending this as a criticism of the Mariners' maneuver, nor do I mean to convey the idea that high-level talent should be untouchable and unmovable. It's easy to fall into the trap of evaluating talented players by their potential peak, and that can lead to all kinds of real-life problems. I just think it's worth remembering why we found guys like Thornton and Morrow so frustrating in the first place. They were frustrating because they weren't getting nearly enough out of their obvious, striking ability. They were frustrating because they had a chance to be stars, and hadn't yet evolved into stars. That made us upset, because there are few things quite as disappointing as squandered talent. At the same time, though, there are few things quite as satisfying as talent that's realized, and more often than not, I feel like that's a progression that should be given every opportunity to take place.