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Today in Blue Jays history: Jack Morris signed over Frank Viola

Did the Jays target the wrong frontline pitcher?

Braves v Blue Jays Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

30 years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays landed the biggest free agent in team history, beating out the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox for the services of veteran starter Jack Morris. On December 18, 1991, Morris and his agent Dick Moss visited Toronto (before a potential trip to Boston the next day) and finalized a two year contract worth $10.85-million guaranteed, with a team option on a third year for a potential total of $14.85-million.

In the biggest sense, it worked out grandly for the Jays. Morris made 61 starts and threw almost 400 innings as the Jays finally got the promised land in winning the World Series in both of his seasons. From the standpoint of “with-or-without you” (WOWY) analysis, the Jays are 2-for-2 winning World Series in seasons with Morris, and 0-for-43 otherwise (the only player for whom that is true). Flags fly forever, and for many that might be the extent of the analysis of the signing.

However, considering that the Blue Jays made Morris the highest paid pitcher in baseball, the actual production was underwhelming and the value arguably abysmal. While Morris was ostensibly the ace of the 1992 rotation that finally got the Jays over the top at 21-6, with a 4.04 ERA he was more a solid mid-rotation starter in quality. Then in 1993 he collapsed to to a 7-12 record with a dreadful 6.19 ERA, missing the end of the season and playoffs with a partially torn elbow ligament.

Worse, for a guy who was signed on the basis of being a big game pitcher (“At last, a money pitcher,” exulted Dave Perkins in The Toronto Star, “Now there’s no doubt about which pitcher should start next year’s playoffs. No repeat of the shoddy scenes of a couple months past...they have a dragon of a pitcher, someone who lives to pitch the big games”), Morris bombed in the 1992 playoffs. At 0-3 in four starts with a 7.43 ERA, in fact no player did more to prevent the Jays from winning it (and only Roberto Alomar’s shot off Dennis Eckersley saved him from 0-4). Even if healthy, he wouldn’t have merited being on the playoff roster in 1993.

What’s particularly interesting in light of this is the alternative the Blue Jays had if Morris had chosen the Red Sox over them. After he agreed to sign, they withdrew their offer to Frank Viola, who then agreed to sign a three year contract with Boston for $13.9-million.

It is impossible for a comparison of the two not to be coloured by the benefit of hindsight, but I can’t thinking the Jays would have been better off pursuing Viola in the first place. It’s almost indisputable that if both were free agents 30 years later, the pecking order would be very different. It is this that I want to dive into more, but first some necessary background and context.

The 1991 Blue Jays went into the season with a rotation of Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, David Wells, and rookie Denis Boucher. By late May, there was big trouble as Boucher was demoted in the middle of the month and then Dave Stieb battled back problems. Initially thought be a short term issue that would cost a few starts, a herniated disc cost him the rest of the season as he made his last start May 22nd (even more sadly, his career was effectively over).

Juan Guzman stepped into the rotation in early June, providing a huge shot in the arm and plugging one hole. To plug the other hole and push the Jays over the edge in the mediocre and wide open AL East, in late-June Pat Gillick went out and got knuckleballer and impending Cleveland free agent Tom Candiotti. The price was high, with three highly regarded young players going the other way in Mark Whiten, Glenallen Hill and Boucher.

But Candiotti was a bona fida front line pitcher (3.34 ERA in 624.2 innings from 1988-90) having a Cy Young calibre season (2.24 ERA in 108.1 innings when traded). And he was huge for the Blue Jays, posting a 2.98 ERA in 19 starts with 129.2 innings. However, his last three starts were rough, and then his two ALCS starts went poorly (7.2 innings, 8.22 ERA) as the Jays were easily dispatched by Minnesota in five games.

The ill-times slump was even more glaring given the contrast to Morris, who had won his two starts in the ALCS and then won two more in the World Series in a total of three good starts. Famously, that culminated outduelling Tom Glavine in game seven, a 10 inning complete game shutout. Morris has signed with his hometown Twins in February, deciding to leave Detoir after 14 seasons.

The Jays were interested, but Morris insisted on the right to become a free agent again after the season (at that time, players could not become free agents within five years of having done so long as their team offered salary arbitration under a CBA provision known as “repeater rights” that was eliminated in the post-strike 1996 CBA). The Twins were willing to guarantee that they wouldn’t offer arbitration, and so Morris signed a one year deal for $3.7-million with a player option for 1992 at $3.65-million (that he declined to re-test the market).

As the 1991-92 offseason dawned, the Jays’ first priority was to re-sign Candiotti. Luring free agents north of the border was considered a challenge, so the Jays tended to focus on retaining their own players. Moreover, the common perception at the time when trading young players for a veteran was that if they walked it was a bad use of assets.

More tangibly, with Stieb undergoing surgery and a big question mark, they needed a legit arm alongside Key, Guzman, Stottlemyre and Wells to cement the rotation for a shot at finally getting to the World Series. Already there were detractors given Candiotti’s late season stumble (Dave Perkins was particularly vitriolic), but if not Candiotti, the Jays needed to pivot elsewhere.

In early December, a day after Bobby Bonilla re-set the pay scale in signing a $29-million contract with the Mets, Candiotti signed with the Dodgers for $15.5-million over four years. A native of southern California, he had a strong preference to return to one of the local teams, but as big a factor was the fourth year. The Blue Jays’ team policy was to only guarantee three years, and though they would get creative with easily vesting years beyond, they would not waive the policy.

Thus as the winter meetings approached in Miami Beach, there were two frontline free agent pitchers left available: Jack Morris and Frank Viola.

Morris’s preference was to return to Minnesota, but they had budget issues and were unable/unwilling to budge from their initial offer of two guaranteed years between $8- and $9-million, with a third year option for a total of about $13.5-million. That opened the door to other suitors.

For his part, Viola had turned down a three year, $13-million extension from the Mets before the season, before turning in a lackluster 13-15 season with a 3.97 ERA (worse than league average) in 231.1 innings. They weren’t interested in bringing him back, spending big dollars on Bonilla and Eddie Murray, before dealing for Bret Saberhagen at the meetings.

Initially, the Jays at least professed to be uninterested in Viola, but after making their offer to Morris early in the meetings (reported at two years and upward of $10-million guaranteed, with a third year option up to $15-million), they circled back to Viola. The exact terms were not clearly reported, but Gillick’s public posture by the end of the meetings was that they were satisfied with both and and it was up to whomever accepted first.

It was clear however that Toronto and Boston were both reserving their best offers for Morris until he decided, with Viola the fall back option. Morris likely was holding out for the third year guaranteed, and when neither bit at that made his decision and causing the Red Sox to turn to Viola. In the end, the cash salaries were very similar ($5.35M/$4.5M for Morris in 1992-93; $5.4M/$4.5M for Viola). Viola got the extra year guaranteed (being five years younger) at $4M, the same net salary as Morris’s net option for 1994.

Viola ended up the much better bargain. In 1992, he threw 238 innings to a strong 3.44 ERA in the AL East, besting Morris. He followed that up with a solid 1993, 183.2 innings to a 3.12 ERA. 1994 ended up a write-off, as his career was effectively over, but two very good years and ~8 WAR (6 fWAR/10 bWAR) in the first two seasons more then justified the contract. It would have especially fit for the Jays’, big contributions in 1992-93 and then they fell off anyway.

That of course is hindsight, but what about looking just through 1991? Beyond the narrative of being a big game pitcher (worth less than nothing in the end), what Morris had to recommend him was being a durable workhorse. Over the previous 10 years, Morris had averaged 34 starts and 249 innings. Though he had some very good seasons, on the whole it was more solid than spectacular, with a 3.72 ERA (92 ERA-, or 8% fewer runs than league average).

But Viola was no slouch in that department either. In his nine full MLB season from 1983, he had averaged 35 starts and 246 innings. Just as much a workhorse, and actually slightly better at preventing runs (3.64 ERA, 89 ERA-). Before his down 1991, he had emerged as a borderline ace from 1987-90 (74-46, 2.97 ERA in 1017.2 innings, 22 fWAR/26 bWAR).

On the flip side, Morris was trending down before the 1991 bounceback. In his age 33-35 seasons from 1988-90, he posted a mediocre 4.40 ERA over 655 innings. While the most recent season is rightly given the most weight, in the broader context of a pitcher going into his late 30s, today we’d contextualize much more as the deadcat bounce it turned out to be.

For his part, Viola had some yellow flags due to injury. The most talked about were elbow chips, but according to his agent Craig Fenech that wasn’t largely responsible for the decline in performance. Rather, he had a cyst under one his fingernails that prevented him from using his slider much or having feel for offspeed, and in the second half had been limited largely to fastballs. But it had been surgically addressed after the season and wasn’t an issue going forward.

On balance, while elbow issues would always be a worry for pitchers in their 30s with a heavy workload (and eventually did catch up to him in latte 1993 and required Tommy John in 1994), it would be even more the case for a pitcher in his late-30s (and indeed caught up with Morris too). The risk was not undue with three guaranteed years (especially being just one more than Morris while having five years and a thousand innings less mileage).

I don’t think it’s pure hindsight to say I wish the Jays had gone after Viola rather than Morris 30 years ago. I certainly think that today it would have been the opposite, with Viola the more sought after and commanding a significantly larger contract.