Brandon Morrow has a career ERA of 4.37 and he's never pitched 180 innings in a season.
And yet I love this deal for the Toronto Blue Jays: They signed Morrow to a three-year deal for $20 million, plus a $10 million option. If the fourth year is exercised, the Jays will buy out the first two seasons of Morrow's free agency.
After averaging 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 26 starts in 2010, Morrow led the American League with 10.2 K's per nine in 2011. That's precisely why this deal has big upside for the Jays, despite Morrow's 4.72 ERA.
In the past 10 seasons, we've had 66 pitchers who threw at least 162 innings and averaged at least 9.0 strikeout per nine. Only Ricky Nolasco with a 5.06 ERA in 2009 and Brandon Duckworth with a 5.41 ERA in 2002 had a higher ERA than Morrow's 4.72. Here's how those 66 pitchers break down in regards to ERA:
2.00 to 2.49: 11
2.50 to 2.99: 16
3.00 to 3.49: 17
3.50 to 3.99: 12
4.00 to 4.49: 6
4.50 or higher: 4
Now, I'm not saying Morrow will turn into Justin Verlander. Maybe he's more A.J. Burnett than ace. But I like his chances to improve. His big problem in 2011 was pitching from the stretch. With the bases empty, he dominated hitters with a line of .217/.292/.340. With men on base, opposing batters hit .267/.346/.466, including .288 with a .523 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position. He had similar issues in 2010, when batters hit .222 with the bases empty and .280 with runners on.
I'm not sure what's going on there, if it's a focus issue or not relaxing or relying too much on his fastball or what. It seems like something that can be corrected. Look, Morrow still has a lot to prove: He has to pitch deeper into games (he averaged fewer than six innings per start in 2011) and there is still room to improve his command. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos talks about Morrow's contract and work ethic here. All in all, a wise move to lock him up now; if he busts out this season he'd be even more expensive to sign.
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In the midst of the Prince Fielder hysteria, the Blue Jays also announced that they signed former Reds closer Francisco Cordero to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. Cordero had 37 saves and a superficially low 2.45 ERA in 2011. He's unlikely to match that number in 2012 as he likely serves as set-up man to Sergio Santos. The Blue Jays' bullpen had a 3.88 ERA in 2011, ninth in the AL. They've added Santos, Cordero and Darren Oliver while losing Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp. That should be a net gain, as Francisco, Rauch and Camp combined for a 4.21 ERA. If Morrow and Brett Cecil improve and Brett Lawrie takes the league by storm and Colby Rasmus reaches his potential ... well, the Blue Jays could be very interesting.
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Finally, the Jays signed Omar Vizquel to a minor-league contract. Vizquel will turn 45 in April. Maybe he'll play as long as Julio Franco, who hit .309 at age 45 and played until he was 48. I hope so. Vizquel once played with Paul Assenmacher, who played with Phil Niekro, who played with Warren Spahn, who played with Si Johnson, who played with Edd Roush, who played with Jimmy Callahan, who played with Cap Anson, who hit .285 at age 45 for the 1897 Chicago Colts. Vizquel is 13th on the all-time games played list. He needs 79 games to pass Barry Bonds and move into the top 10 all time. Go get 'em, Little O.