An In-Depth Look at Extending Brandon Morrow

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With the Blue Jays offseason in a bit of a slump and the Darren Oliver signing being the most exciting thing at the moment, I found myself having to write about something different. Rather than speculating on Garza rumours or a possible (I use that term loosely) Prince Fielder signing, I have come to the realization that other than the occasional non-consequential signing the Jays likely won’t do much in terms of roster changes this offseason. Instead they will likely stick to their plan of building from within and then keeping the talent in the organization. Up to this point the latter half of the plan has only needed to be addressed to a small extent, but now with young talented players like Brett LawrieColby Rasmus, and the centre of this writing piece Brandon Morrowall possibly needing extensions, Alex Anthopoulos definitely has his work cut out for him.

Morrow as most of you probably know was traded to the Blue Jays from the Mariners in December 2009 for right handed reliever Brandon League. Seattle had drafted Morrow in the 2006 draft with presumably the intention of making him their closer. At the time this seemed fine as Morrow had the velocity and plus pitch that you traditionally look for in a closer, but as time went on the Seattle front office and coaching staff created some kinks in Morrow’s development. These kinks being that towards the end of the 2008 season, the Mariners decided that they would begin to move Morrow to the starting rotation and out of a relief role, utilizing the ole Earl Weaver strategy.

Long story short Morrow’s stints as a starter didn’t turn out as expected and it resulted in the Mariners demotion of him to AAA as well as the multiple changes between roles in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Due to this Morrow began to become a “change of scenary” for Seattle in the sense that he didn’t need to be traded, but would likely have trouble succeeding in Seattle organization through the development process they had created. Ultimately all of this hoopla turned out well, for the Jays at least, as it led to the trade that landed them Morrow in 2009. Reports initially coming from the Blue Jays organization subsequent to the trade suggested that they intended on using Morrow exclusively in the starting rotation, giving Morrow a clean slate to work on.

Now what does all this mean and why is it at all important to a possible contract extension. Well if you simply look at Brandon Morrow’s service time and age you would see that he is heading in to his second year of arbitration and is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. But if you take into account the time that Morrow spent with the Mariners and how he was never really used as a full time starter there, then Morrow is in some sense of the word a third year player.

In terms of the actual contract extension this means that rather than the negotiations acting as if Morrow is a guy with 4 years of service time, Anthopoulos could make the argument that Morrow is really just a third year player coming off his sophmore season. I’m sure Morrow’s agent would have something to say about that, but it would be a good argument for Anthopoulos to make. If that is the route that Anthopoulos takes I’m sure guys like Jon LesterYovani GallardoRicky Romero, and Jaime Garcia would come up in terms of comparable contracts, all of which signed for around 5 years and $30 million.

Now obviously it is quite unreasonable to expect Morrow to take that type of contract when MLBTR already projects him to make $4.2 million in arbitration this year. Instead I’m sure Morrow’s agent will come back comparing Brandon Morrow to the recently extended John Danks and rightfully so. Danks signed an extension for 5 years and $65 million with the Chicago White Sox this offseason. Had he not signed the extension, Danks would have been eligible for free agency after the 2012 season one year before Brandon Morrow.

The Danks comp likely to be brought up would be interesting as Danks and Morrow are very similar but different at the same time. They are similar in the sense that both players are in their fifth year in the MLB and close to free agency, but due to time spent in the minors Morrow has one less year of service time and 3 less years of full time starting experience. Other than that one similarity they are pretty different in their execution, but both have been good starters over the last three years. Danks has the higher fWAR in the last three seasons, due in large part to a higher innings count. He also holds a lead in the traditional stats like ERA and Wins, which often increase arbitration and sometimes free agency earnings. Though on the other side Morrow holds a firm lead in his K% as well as the more sabrmetric and predictive stats such as FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. (Customized FanGraphs stats table here)

What this all boils down to is that in the end Morrow will likely get a lot less guaranteed money than John Danks, but also significantly more than Ricky Romero. Danks’ contract is worth about $65 million and Romero’s is worth $30.1 million, it seems like such a simple-minded way to do it, but if you take the average of those two contracts it is about $47.5 million over 5 years. If there is to be a $47.5 million dollar extension proposed, I’m thinking it will probably work out something like this…

If you look at the layout of the proposed contract, depending on how good they think Brandon Morrow really is, the contract seems to work out for both sides. Morrow gets some added financial security and the Blue Jays get 3 years of Brandon Morrow’s free agency at a reasonable price with a chance at quite a bit of upside. Using the current assumption of approximately $5 million = 1 WAR we can figure that for Morrow to be worth the contract extension he only needs to produce 1.9 WAR per year. If we use FanGraphs version of WAR we see that over his past two years as a starter Brandon Morrow has averaged 3.5 WAR per season, far and above the value he would need to provide in order to fulfill the proposed contract extension.

Even if we use the less optimistic Baseball Reference version of WAR we can see that over the past two years Morrow has averaged 1.5 WAR. Then using Sky Kalkman’s WAR Spreadsheet, we can figure out how much Morrow has to improve to fulfill his contract. As expressed in the first table over the course of his contract Morrow has to be worth an average of 1.9 WAR per year. In the past two years Morrow hasn’t been at that mark, but if you take his average ERA from the past two years and then assume a steady innings increase you get a total of 11.0 WAR, which is still 1.5 WAR in surplus value. Even if you assume that he misses some time to injury, Morrow would still have to miss roughly 140 innings over the course of the contract, which isn’t unprecedented, just to be worth the 0.1 WAR less than the value of the contract.

Finally if you at all believe that Brandon Morrow will reach his “potential” that predictive stats such as his 3.51 xFIP or 3.31 SIERA over the past two years indicate, then that is all just added value. If you believe that over the course of his contract that Morrow will match his xFIP (top half of the table below) with the same innings counts as in the above table then he will be worth approximately 24.8 WAR, which is 15.3 wins of added value. Then if you are a real dreamer and believe that Morrow can match his SIERA (bottom half of the table below) he will be worth about 27.6 WAR, which is 18.1 wins in surplus value.
Of course almost all of this is speculative research and depends quite a bit on Morrow accepting a contract similar to the 5 year $47.5 million dollar contract proposed earlier, but the contract at least in my opinion seems pretty fair and through this has a very good chance of providing surplus value. Though as I stated there is always the chance that Morrow would turn down that contract as he has been known to follow some sabrmetric stats or as he calls them “nerd” stats. He may feel like he has more potential to outperform this contract, but financial security is always nice too, especially for a pitcher. Then there is also the off chance that the Blue Jays organization feels like he isn’t even worth the proposed amount. Whatever it is we as fans can only hope that at some point Brandon Morrow reaches his “potential” and doesn’t just become one of those players with the great peripheral stats, who never lives up to them.

The Anthopoulos regime has been good with extensions thus far after handing them out to players such as Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero, and Yunel Escobar, we can only hope that the Jays front office continues the trend going forward. With Brandon Morrow and whatever other young cost controllable player the Blue Jays acquire.