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Phillips: On Morrow, Marlins, Rivera and Astros

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Steve Phillips
5/9/2014 5:53:11 PM
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TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers several questions each week. This week, topics cover Brandon Morrow's future, the Miami Marlins, Mariano Rivera's choice in second basemen and the Houston Astros.

1) The Toronto Blue Jays placed Brandon Morrow on the 60-day-DL last week, and if he needs surgery on his finger, Morrow will be finished for the year.  Should the club pick up his $10 Million option for next season and would the injury prone Morrow be perhaps better off as a relief pitcher regardless of where he plays next season?
 
So far so good with Brandon Morrow as it seems he will not need surgery at this time.  However, he is once again on the DL and won't be back until after the All-Star break.  Pitchers come back from torn sheaths of the index finger, so it isn't a matter of whether he will make it back, he will be back. 

The question is: what is Morrow as a pitcher? 

He and the Jays need to decide what he is as a pitcher.  Is he a starter or a reliever?  This is a decision that has to be made not only because of his physical ability but also his capability.  The health question is obvious but so too is the legitimate question about just how good Morrow really is.

Physically being a starter is a different challenge than being a reliever.  Starters have to log innings to have a significant impact.  They need to be able to take the ball every fifth day and consistently give their team a chance to win. That means that their bodies need to be able to recover completely with four days off in order to be able to pitch effectively.  Relievers pitch in much shorter spurts but have to be able to bounce back from one day to the next and maintain the quality of their stuff.  Otherwise a reliever restricts his manager's decision making if he is frequently unavailable. 

Morrow has clearly shown an inability to remain healthy as a starter.  He has made only 30 starts once in his career.  This means that the Jays have had to challenge the organization's depth because he has been unable to pitch.  Almost always the replacement has not been as good as Morrow could be. 

Predictability is important for a team both physically and mentally.  When a team is concerned about whether a pitcher can make his next start it impacts the plans and decisions a manager has to make.  Does he have to hold back a reliever in case he needs a spot start?  Should the manager save his bullpen just in case the risky starter needs to come out of the game early?  The manager and team are always in limbo. 

Morrow cannot physically be a starter in my mind. 

But that doesn't necessarily mean that he can be a reliever.  It is fair to question whether he can assume the rigors of being a regular 7th inning, 8th inning or closer option for the Jays or any other team.   I believe that it is Morrow's best shot of sustaining his career.  His body can't seem to handle a lot of work in a little bit of time as a starter.  He should find it easier to pitch an inning at a time. 

The main reason he should be a reliever is that it will better suit his mindset too.  Morrow needs to be much more aggressive as a pitcher.  He has lost some trust in his fastball and often nibbles the corner of he plate rather than challenging the hitters with his best stuff.  His 17 walks in 27 innings pitched show that. 

In his last start against the Pirates, Morrow's fastball ranged from 90-93 MPH when he faced position players.  When he threw his fastball to the opposing pitcher. Garret Cole, he threw it 95-97.  He had no fear of the pitcher and just reared back and said. "I dare you to hit it."  He didn't think about pacing himself or missing the bat when he threw to the pitcher.  He was aggressive and confident.  As a reliever Morrow could be more aggressive with his fastball and simplify his secondary pitches, which sometimes get him in trouble. 

A move to the bullpen is exactly what Morrow needs from a physical and philosophical perspective.

As far as the contract goes, there is no way I would ever exercise the $10M option.  The Jays jut can't afford the risk.  So at the end of the year the Jays should offer Morrow a middle reliever's salary with bonuses based upon games finished if he becomes the closer and games started if he is a starter.  He is at the point that he would have to earn any amount of money beyond what a middle reliever could make.  I think Morrow has a couple of good years left but I just don't know it for a fact.  Time for pay-for-play.


2) The Miami Marlins are tied for first in the NL East, largely due to their 17-5 record at home.  What makes them so good at home, and can they stay in the race given the struggles of the rest of the division? 

The Marlins have been one of the great stories of the 2014 baseball season.  They are ranked 29th in payroll ($47,565,400), yet are leading the NL East, whose payroll's range from $90M (Mets) to $180M (Phillies).  The 17 home wins by the Marlins are by far the best in the game.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that the same team with the same players is 3-10 on the road. 

The division is grouped together with only four games separating the Marlins at the top and Phillies at the bottom (15-18).  Coming into the season the Braves and Nationals were thought to be the class of the division.  The Marlins were thought to have some interesting young players but not to be a legitimate contender.

So far at home the Marlins are averaging almost six runs per game offensively while their pitchers ERA is 2.61 ERA at Marlins Park.  While on the road they have a 4.29 ERA and are only averaging 2.69 runs per game on offense.  These differentials explain why the home and road records are so vastly different but they don't tell us why there is such a stark difference in performance.

As is almost always the case, there is a correlation between payroll and average age on the roster.  The younger the roster, the less experience and therefore the lower the payroll.  The Marlins are the second youngest team in the game with an average age of 27.  Only the Astros are younger (26.8). 

My experience has taught me that young players are vulnerable to changes in routine and process.  For teams like the Astros and Marlins much of what they experience in the major leagues is new to them.  At home they have a set routine.  They live in their own house with their wives and kids.  They drive their own car to the ballpark and take the same route most days.  They tend to wake up at the same time in their own bed and eat their meals at just about the same time everyday. 

When the team goes on the road their routines are completely blown up.  They leave their families behind. Fly at odd hours and sleep in hotels.  They live out of their suitcases.  Often times players sleep in later in hotels.  They may not eat breakfast.  They eat hotel food instead of home cooked meals.  They take a bus to the ballpark.  They may not know how to even get to the clubhouse if they haven't been to the park before.   Batting practice and conditioning work are done at different times.  They are out of their comfort zone. 

Baseball is such a mental game.  The way you think and feel affects the way you play.  It takes years of experience for even the best players to separate daily life from the ballpark life.  It is not uncommon for young teams to struggle on the road for that reason. 

If this young Marlins team is truly going to compete they are going to have to play better on the road, since, I don't think they will be able to sustain this level of play at home.  In the end it really doesn't matter if I believe in the Marlins or if you do.  If they believe in themselves and can push through the inevitable struggles that bring voices of doubt they will stay close through the end of July.  They will most likely run out of gas over the last two months of the season because that is typically what teams this young do.  Maybe just maybe they are different.  Either way they are very interesting and fun to watch.

3) Future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera made some waves earlier in the week, when an excerpt from his new book was released stating that he would rather have Dustin Pedroia in a must win game than former teammate Robinson Cano.  Is Rivera correct in this opinion, and does this in anyway tarnish Rivera's reputation?

Writing a book upon retirement sounds like a good idea but it almost always leads to trouble.  Drama and conflict sell.  Editors want to stir it up so fans have interest in reading the book.  Even the great kind gentleman, Mariano Rivera, got caught in the trap.  Rivera is one of the most respected competitors ever, not only for his ability but also for his class and dignity.  He was the pro's pro; the ultimate professional.  He always said and did the right thing in his career.  Until now.

I completely agree with Rivera's evaluation of Robinson Cano. "This guy has so much talent I don't know where to start... There is no doubt that he is a Hall-of-Fame caliber (player). It's just a question of whether he finds the drive you need to get there. I don't think Robby burns to be the best... You don't see that red-hot passion in him that you see in most elite players."

Cano is an extraordinary talent for whom much comes easy.  He often looks lethargic though and we are left to wonder about his desire and need to win. 

I also agree with Rivera about his evaluation of Dustin Pedroia. "Nobody plays harder, gives more, wants to win more. He comes at you hard for twenty-seven outs. It's a special thing to see.  If I have to win one game, I'd have a hard time taking anybody over Dustin Pedroia as my second baseman."

Rivera could not have been more right on both players.  But it doesn't mean that it was right.  It is so counter to who Rivera is to ever criticize a teammate.  Yes, he was honest and truthful in his evaluations.  But being honest doesn't mean that you have to say all of the truth. 

All of that being said this doesn't change for one second, the way I feel about Mariano Rivera.  It actually reinforces my view on Cano.  They have both earned that response from me.

4)  Houston we have a problem! 

Can someone please tell me what the Houston Astros are doing?  I understand that franchises need to rebuild but this is crazy.  They have lost 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011-13. This season they are on pace to lose 111 games once again.  They have the youngest team in the majors and the lowest overall payroll of $44.5M.  They had the lowest payroll in 2012 with the second youngest average age of players on the roster. 

By most accounts the Astros have a top-five farm system loaded with potential major league players.   Player development and scouting are critical for every organization.  They are certainly important for rebuilding teams and especially important for small market teams who just can't afford high-priced free agents. 

Smaller market teams have to develop their own power:  power arms and power bats.  Power is the most expensive commodity in the free agent market so if small market teams are going to compete they need their own kids to deliver. 

Young talent alone though does not always win.  There needs to be chemistry and character for every winning team.  Young players need to learn how to win at the major league level.  It doesn't just happen.  Kids need to learn to cope with failure and adversity.  Certainly, minor league experience helps players develop but for every player there is more learning to do at the major league level. 

The best way to learn how to win at the major league level is to actually win some games.  A roster full of young players no matter how talented will be subject to a bunch of losing.  Every game one kid may play well.  But that will be countered, by another young player who plays poorly.  Young kids look great one day and horrible the next.  It is the nature of being young.  The talent is there but the consistency is not.  The Astros have some kids that can play but they will get diminishing returns if they continue to let them get their heads beat in every year. 

The Astros need to add some veteran experience to their roster.  Certainly coaches help players make adjustments and improve but it is my contention that players learn as much or more from sharing their experience with one another.  Veteran players can help with the mental aspect of the game better than the coaches.  Becoming a consistent player is a way of thinking more than a way of doing. 

The Astros have some exciting young kids in their organization but they need a few boring veterans to help stabilize the environment or they will find themselves in a continuous state of rebuilding. 

Guys like Justin Mourneau, Marlon Byrd, James Loney, Casey McGhee, Juan Uribe, Ryan Ludwick, Jason Kubel, Scott Kazmir, Dan Haren, Kyle Lohse and Bronson Arroyo are the types of players I am talking about.  They are all mid-level players who won't break the bank but would have given the Astros a shot at finishing with respectability over the past few years and would be extremely beneficial to have help develop their young studs into winning players. 

Houston we have a solution!

Brandon Morrow (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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