Healthy Morrow could give Blue Jays a big lift
Right-hander looking to bounce back from injury-plagued 2013 season
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For all the talk about the Blue Jays' need to acquire additional starting pitching this offseason, it's very possible that their biggest upgrade will come from within.
Toronto has been desperately looking for ways to improve its rotation for the past several months, but a significant move has proved elusive. There are still several big-name pitchers available on the open market, but arguably no one on that list possesses the type of potential to match right-hander Brandon Morrow.
Morrow has seen his progress stalled on at least a couple of occasions because of injuries, but the hope is that those issues are now a thing of the past. For Toronto's sake, they better be, because all eyes will be on the 29-year-old this spring as he projects to become the club's biggest wild card.
"The same amount of pressure I put on myself every year," Morrow said when asked if the Blue Jays' lack of moves this offseason has added to the weight on his shoulders. "I've always pictured myself at the top of this rotation, definitely top three every year coming in. I don't think that puts any more pressure on me than I normally would put on myself as far as trying to get off to a good start and the team's goals."
Toronto's need to address the rotation has been painfully obvious since the early stages of 2013. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and left-hander Mark Buehrle were the only consistent performers on a starting staff that was expected to be one of the best in baseball.
The lack of results from right-hander Josh Johnson and injuries to both Morrow and left-hander J.A. Happ certainly attributed to the club's woes but the final numbers weren't pretty. The Blue Jays' starters combined to post a 4.81 ERA, which ranked second to last in the Major Leagues. The combined innings (899 1/3, ranked third to last), opponents' batting average (.272, ranked fourth to last) and wins (46, ranked seventh to last) also weren't far off that lowly mark.
The good news is that help is on the way, with Toronto having a countless number of candidates in the mix for the final spot in the rotation. Prospects Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin are considered candidates, alongside returnees Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond and perhaps even Dustin McGowan.
That could help solve the issues at the back end of the staff, but in order for the Blue Jays to be considered a realistic threat in the American League East, someone has to step forward as a legitimate frontline option to go alongside Dickey and Buehrle. Morrow -- with his fastball that reaches the upper-90s, a wipeout slider and an improving curveball -- could become that guy.
The organzation hoped Morrow was going to turn into a borderline ace in 2013, but an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm quickly put an end to those dreams. The injury resulted in Morrow being shut down on May 29, and while he was initially expected to be back within a month, he never did return.
The forearm issues are now ancient history, though, and Morrow is looking forward to throwing without limitations this spring.
"Everything has been great, I went through the whole rehab program with no problems at all, I wasn't sore one day through the whole process," said Morrow, who was in Buffalo on Thursday afternoon to attend a luncheon with the Triple-A Bisons.
"I threw five or six bullpen [sessions], finishing up the first week of December," he said. "Four innings was my last one, where I'd throw 15 pitches and then sit down five or six minutes. Throwing 100 percent at game speed, I had no problems. I'm confident in the way I feel now."
Contrary to previously disclosed information, Morrow said he knew about the entrapped nerve in May, but the condition is rare and difficult to treat. Following a very brief period of inactivity, Morrow resumed throwing, but when the pain didn't go away, he was sent away to be examined by renowned surgeon James Andrews.
Andrews prescribed a minimum of six to eight weeks of rest and recommended that Morrow be held out for the remainder of the season. In a sign of just how rare an entrapped nerve is, Andrews said he only sees one or two cases per year.
"I really can't think of anything that would have triggered it," said Morrow, whose best season came in 2012, when he posted a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts. "It just happened. ... I started feeling just a little bit of soreness in the fifth of sixth inning [on May 23 vs. Baltimore], just felt a little general soreness in that area, and that was the first time I've ever been sore there in my whole life.
"Whenever you have an injury, you're compensating something else to make up for that. That's ultimately why I couldn't come back from this -- the pain was there, yeah -- but pain is one thing. When it's altering your release point and you're not able to locate the ball, that's obviously the most important thing, that's when I knew it wasn't going to be possible to come back at that point, that I'd have to shut it down and go see Dr. Andrews."