When I first joined the Blue Jays in 2002, I was told over and again about the brilliance of the club's farm system. The leading industry mag Baseball America ranked Toronto's organizational talent and depth among the best in the game that year when it proudly rolled out its list of Top Ten Jays Prospects. Let's look back at that list they were raving about, with its hits (few) and misses (many):
1. Josh Phelps
Swing & a Miss - Has played nearly 1,000 games...in the minor leagues.
2. Gabe Gross
Miss - An exceptionally nice young man. Also an exceptionally nice 4th outfielder.
3. Jayson Werth
Hit - See 2009 World Series & Playoffs hilite reel...and the 2008 version too.
4. Dustin McGowan
Miss - Has only made 56 career starts with an ERA near 5. Can we all agree to stop hoping he'll be the next Roy Halladay and just wish for one full season without some kind of awful health complication?
5. Orlando Hudson
Hit - Two-time All-Star! Four Gold Gloves! That's the kind of two by four any team can build with.
6. Eric Hinske
Miss - Won the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year, but has never matched his numbers from that season again. Contributed to a pair of World Series wins with some of the best high fives and celebratory hugs the Yankees and Red Sox dugouts have ever seen.
7. Brandon League
8. Alex Rios
Pitch taken - Is he really a star? Or should we read something more into Toronto's utter delight at letting him go for nothing and Ozzie Guillen's utter anguish at his level of play in Chicago?
9. Kevin Cash
Miss - In 7 years in the Major Leagues, has only appeared in 197 games, slightly more than the equivalent of one full season.
10. Tyrell Godwin
Miss - 3 plate appearances in 2005 with Washington...that is all.
Hmmm...Interesting, no? If I were looking for something nice to say, I'd remark all ten players made it to the big leagues. That's no small achievement.
Past that though, I think it's fair to say this much-heralded group didn't exactly turn out to be a bumper crop of farm fresh goods. If this was what the wise folks at Baseball America deemed to be fertile farm soil, I'd hate to look back at what they then declared to be a toxic waste dump.
You'll notice I deliberately left Lucky Number 7 blank, because I'm still not sure, even now as he apparently packs for the Pacific Northwest, exactly what to make of Brandon League. His 2005 and 2007 seasons were unmitigated disasters. His 2006 and 2008 campaigns were pictures of brilliance. Then in 2009, he managed to offer up a bit of both.
He recorded 76 strikeouts in 74.2 innings of work. That's really good!
He also gave up 72 hits, more than a third of them for extra bases. That's not!
On August 12, he worked three scoreless innings in New York, surrendering just one hit to the mighty Yankees. Great stuff!
Four days later, he came into a 1-1 game in Tampa and promptly gave up three hits, including a Gregg Zaun grand slam, in a 5-2 Jays loss. Not so much!
He gave up just 2 earned runs in both July and September. An god-like 1.48 ERA in those two months!
He gave up 12 earned runs in both June and August. A god-awful 8.10 ERA in those two months!
And that was Brandon....brilliant one moment, blasted the next and always a League of his own (literally and figuratively, I suppose).
What are the Blue Jays getting in return? Brandon Morrow was the fifth pick overall in the 2006 Draft, a selection Mariners fans despair about to this very day. It's not that Seattle just missed on Evan Longoria, gone to the Rays at #3. But rather that the home side went looking for pitching in that draft and managed to look past hometown hero Tim Lincecum. You think Morrow has heard about that a few times from drunken Mariners fans? Forget about drunken Mariners fans -- How about sober Mariners beat writers? I put the key words Morrow and Lincecum in the search engine of the Seattle Times and nearly crashed my computer. It spit out pages and pages of articles in which both names appeared, very few of which were kind to Morrow. Consider this piece from Jerry Brewer about Lincecum:
"OK, now here's the obligatory Mariners lament...Seattle had a chance to draft him but took Brandon Morrow at No. 5 overall. In all fairness, Morrow is doing just fine....But who wants to be fair? Tim Lincecum is a homegrown strikeout artist, a Renton native with the rarest of stuff. Morrow is good, but Lincecum comes with more sizzle, especially here in the Northwest. He'd look awfully good alongside Felix Hernandez for the next 10 years. He'd look awfully good replacing Jeff Weaver in the next 10 minutes".
Do you know when this piece was written? April 18, 2007. That's before Lincecum ever pitched an inning in the Big Leagues, before he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated billed as "The Freak", before he recorded 676 strikeouts in just three seasons or before he had won either of his two NL Cy Young Awards. Needless to say, this was one of the kinder articles I found comparing these two draft picks. None of the comparisons since could have possibly helped Morrow's confidence or development. He could never please the local fan base, not because he was a bad pitcher, but rather because he wasn't Tim Lincecum. Who is?
But consider this - there's still something to be said for the fact Morrow was drafted ahead of Lincecum (10th pick). And for that matter ahead of Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (7th), Kyle Drabek now of the Blue Jays (18th) and Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees (41st) too. Perhaps starting over in a new city where he can simply be "Brandon Morrow" as opposed to "Not Tim Lincecum" might produce some favourable results.
So what exactly has Seattle sent us in return for League - a highly regarded young pitcher named Brandon who's proven at times to be both tantalizing and terrifying to the fans in his home market. Funny, but where have we heard that before?