PEORIA, Ariz. -- Some athletes grow accustomed to being labeled during their careers. After nine professional seasons, San Diego pitcher Brandon Morrow is firmly established as one of those "if he can ever stay healthy" guys.
No one has ever doubted Morrow's ability since Seattle selected him out of the University of California with the fifth pick in the 2006 first-year player draft. Morrow was in the majors by 2007, and he has recorded 765 strikeouts in 735 2/3 innings with the Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. His 17-strikeout, complete-game one-hitter for Toronto against Tampa Bay in 2010 remains one of the most dominant performances by a pitcher in recent memory.
But the past three years have been a grind for Morrow, who already faced a challenge as a professional athlete with Type 1 diabetes. He went 10-7 with a 2.96 ERA for Toronto in 2012 but missed five weeks with an oblique injury. His 2013 season was cut short by an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm, and last year he made only 13 appearances because of a torn tendon sheath in his right index finger.
Say this for Morrow: His injuries are certainly inventive.
All that disabled list time ensured that Morrow would get a short, incentive-laden deal when he hit the free-agent market over the winter. In December, Morrow signed a one-year, guaranteed $2.5 million contract with San Diego that includes incentives that can bring him to $8 million if he can ever stay healthy.
The Padres are set at the top of the rotation with James Shields, Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy, and the No. 5 spot is likely to come down to a competition between Morrow and Cuba native Odrisamer Despaigne. Morrow and Despaigne both got off to strong starts with two scoreless innings each in a 5-0 win over the White Sox on Friday.
If Morrow survives the competition, he has a chance to be a National League West and fantasy sleeper. It's a rarity to find a fifth starter with comparable stuff.
"It hasn't been smooth sailing for him," said Padres manager Bud Black. "But from our conversations in the winter time, I know he feels he's at a point where he really wants to make his mark as a starting pitcher. He wants that responsibility -- what it means to the team every fifth day when that pitcher takes the mound. He thinks he's a major league starter, which is great. And like I told him, 'We're going to give you every opportunity.'"
Morrow is reunited with his former Cal teammate Ross in the San Diego rotation. Ross gave him rave reviews about playing for Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley in San Diego, and the experience thus far has lived up to Morrow's expectations.
If Morrow wins the No. 5 spot, he will also have support from a lineup that includes Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Derek Norris. They all came to San Diego by trade within days after Morrow signed with the Padres on Dec. 16.
"I beat the rush," Morrow said. "They told me when I signed that they would be aggressive and try to improve the offense. But I didn't expect that."