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Morrow Deal a Steal?

For once Alex Anthopoulos has done something that was not totally unexpected, inking right handed power pitcher Brandon Morrow to a three year deal with a team option for a fourth (4M, 8M, 8M, 10M club option). The deal is in keeping with the organizational philosophy of locking up pieces of the young core long before they have a chance to test the free agent market, often buying out potential arb-eligible and free-agent years in the process. At first glance the deal seems to be nearly as team-friendly as the Yunel Escobar and Ricky Romero deals, but further examination reveals that the organization is taking on more risk with this transaction than it did with those (albeit slightly longer) financial commitments.

The reason I say this is that the possible outcomes for the duration of this contract contain as much variance as any I can recall. No one disputes that Morrow is a special talent who could very well develop into a "co-Ace" of sorts with Ricky Romero (based on raw stuff he could even surpass Ricky). Leading the majors in K/9 among starting pitchers two years running is nothing to sneeze at. He also lowered his somewhat problematic walk-rate to a more manageable 3.5 this past season, a very encouraging sign indeed. But he is also a converted reliever who has only two years of starting in the majors under his belt and has posted a sub-league average ERA of 4.62 for his career thus far. It also remains to be seen how Morrow will respond physically to a work load approaching or exceeding 200 innings pitched.

AA appears to be betting that Morrow's sizable gap between his ERA and xFIP, the largest of any starting pitcher, can be largely explained by luck factors such as BABIP with runners in scoring position (for a good analysis of Morrow's peripherals see Chris Cwik's article on Fangraphs "Making Sense of Brandon Morrow's ERA").

Based purely on WAR projections it is hard to imagine a healthy Morrow not earning or even out-performing his contract. The usual calculation of 5 million per win probably does not apply to an extension. But even if one uses a more conservative number of 3 million, Morrow, a 3+WAR player each of the past two seasons, still crosses that higher break-even threshold handily. If Morrow's ERA and FIP begin to even remotely resemble each other he could very easily find himself included in the discussion of elite starting pitchers in the American League.

Because there is more potential downside in the Morrow deal than with Romero's (slightly better results at time of signing, if not peripherals) and Escobar's (up the middle talent with more experience, a good glove and solid plate approach/discipline) I think the deal is probably best characterized as "fair" at the present time with the potential to become a steal in the near future.

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