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Brandon Morrow & The Prisoner's Dilemma

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Is there a plausible way for Brandon Morrow to remain a Blue Jay in 2013 without just exercising the team option?

Jason Miller

In the last week, there's been plenty written on this site about what the Jays should do regarding Brandon Morrow's $10-million 2015 team option. Depending on the outcome of Game 6 tonight, we'll find out exactly what the Jays do in four or five days, and in the interim there's really little to be about the decision or likely outcomes that hasn't already been discussed. What I want to discuss is how the incentives of the two sides and the circumstances remind me of something else, and that's the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Of course, I'm not literally suggesting that Morrow is a prisoner, though as the Jays can exercise his option unilaterally and deploy him as they want in 2015 in some sense he is. Per Wikipedia, "The Prisoner's Dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two purely "rational" individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests". Those unfamiliar can follow the link for more details (or watch this short clip from a gameshow Golden Balls that is reasonable representative of the dilemma), but basically both sides face a choice where the best outcome for both occurs if they cooperate. The incentives of each are such that each better off or no worse off if they don't cooperate, so they both choose not to cooperate (usually phrased as betraying) even though both betraying leads to the worst overall outcome.

How is this the case with the Jays and Morrow? It's not a perfect analogy for sure, since the game is premised on players who cannot communicate both making independent and simultaneous decisions. That's not the case here, for starters the Jays can unilaterally exercise the option, but I think the basic framework well explains why most don't think Morrow will be pitching for Toronto in 2015.

From Morrow's side, he's made it clear that he wants to be a starter in 2015 and beyond. Why? To some extent, it's probably because he views that the way he can most help his team, but it's also in large part because there's more prestige in and compensation in starting (particularly with the trend against giving relievers big money and multiple years). So if there's even just a plausible chance of starting, that has the bigger payoff. However, given his injury plagued last two seasons and mediocre at best performance on the mound, in the short run he's best off if the option best picked up. Even if that means relieving in 2015, he could still re-establish effectiveness while banking eight figures.

From the Jays side, there's two important factors. First is that they have actually have very good projected starting pitching depth, with five decent starters (assuming Happ's option is picked up and no others are moved) and quality prospects with AAA experience in the event of injury or ineffectiveness. So there's not a big need for additional (expensive) starting pitchers, but there is a need to shore up the bullpen especially from the right side. Which leads to the second factor, which is that 2015 dollars are scarce. Notwithstanding the need for bullpen help, committing $9-million to a pitcher with question marks is out of the question.

Taken together, this likely results in a predictable sequence: the Jays decline the option, Morrow looks for a pillow contract with a team that can guarantee him the opportunity to start for sure, and that's the end of Morrow and the Jays.

My view is that this is a pretty bad outcome for both sides. For the Jays, it means losing a pitcher with some dynamite stuff and who has flashed tantalizing potential, and has had success in the crucible of the AL East. For Morrow, it means leaving the organization that recognized his potential in acquiring him and giving him the opportunity to start, has the most information to contextualize the time he's missed, and significant experience working with pitchers Type 1 Diabetics. Another team might promise a shot at starting, but lacking long term commitment, could end the experiment quickly it he struggled.

Moreover, there's whole question of whether even if healthy Morrow is best suited to starting. Now 30, he's yet to develop a third pitch that's consistently more than fringy to complement his fastball and knockout slider, although he's shown the ability to dominate when he had both of those pitches working. The problem is when when one is not working, and then things tend to not go well. Realistically, I don't think there's much hope that he develops a third pitch, and more importantly he's entering the phase when pitchers generally start to decline. As a reliever, he'd only need the two pitches and his stuff should play up in shorter outings. Of course, the traditional 60 inning reliever only has so much value.

So the way I see it, both sides have reasons to continue the relationship and keep "cooperating". They also have reasons not to cooperate, which I think leads to a situation in which both end up with suboptimal outcomes. It's the Prisoner's Dilemma. And the circumstances are such that the equilibrium is likely to be the latter scenario.

Happily, the Prisoner's Dilemma is not destiny, and it is possible to achieve the optimal outcome (for a particularly interesting example, see this video from the same show as above). I've got a solution that I think could make sense for both sides. The 2015 option and buyout would be replaced by a 3 year, $15-million deal (4M/5M/6M), with $500K for every 10 innings pitched up to 60 innings ($3M max) and an additional $3M bonus for hitting 150 innings in a year. If Morrow was healthy and effective, he'd get first shot at an opening in the rotation if one were to occur.

Why does this structure work? It gives Morrow the multi-year guarantee players prefer, and a reasonable base salary given his demonstrated ability. For the Jays, it limits the 2015 budget hit, and limits the liability if Morrow misses substantial time. It gives them the ability to plug a big bullpen hole in 2015, while also giving more rotation depth both in 2015 and beyond. Assuming he's healthy, the innings criteria is easy for Morrow to hit regardless of role, so if he's mostly healthy the deal is closer to $24-million, which is within the ballpark of what a decent starter makes.

This would also give the Jays an incentive to use Morrow for as many innings as possible, since they can get more value using him beyond 60 innings without more cost. If they only use him as a one inning reliever, they're not going to get much value from the contract. If they use him creatively, they could definitely get real value. If Morrow ends up starting and is healthy and effective in that role, 150 innings is a fairly easy number to hit, and brings the average salary to $11-million, which is in line with what good starters make. Perhaps even a 2 year deal would be more preferable for both sides, if Morrow wanted to be able to hit the market again a year younger.

At the end of the day, there's a lot of obstacles to a deal and I suspect we've seen the last of Morrow in a Jays uniform. But a little cooperative and creative thinking might be able to overcome this.