The Rockies have been making pitching news often recently, thanks to demoting a starter to the bullpen, creating a four-man rotation with strict pitch count limitations, and assigning separate pitching coaches for their pen and their starters. It's somewhat coincidental, but not without a hint of irony, that at the same time they're doing all of this, former Rockies' hurler and top prospect Franklin Morales looks like he might finally be blossoming as a starter, just one year after Colorado tossed him aside for nothing in a trade with the Red Sox.
That's an oversimplification, but seeing Morales successful so soon after the Rockies exchanged him in a May 2011 trade for cash considerations has to sting a bit for an organization struggling to do anything right on the mound in the present day. Colorado's issues with Morales, though, go back further than the date he was dealt.
Before the 2007 season, Morales was ranked the #30 prospect in the minors by Baseball America. Coming off of a 2006 campaign in which the then 20-year-old left-hander struck out 10.5 batters per nine in 154 innings, it was easy to see why prospect gurus were in love. He had a plus-plus curveball, a fastball that was routinely in the high-90s, capable of touching 100, and a change-up that, while not special like the other two offerings, was more than adequate as a third look. He had his control problems, but what 20-year-old, flame-throwing southpaw doesn't?
His 2007 campaign saw him pitch in Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors, finishing his season in the World Series with the Rox facing, of all teams, the Red Sox. His 2007 was merely good when stats alone are considered -- he posted a 1.6 K/BB across the two minor-league levels, and struck out under six per nine in his 39 innings in the bigs. But when you take into account that he was just 21, and succeeded in spite of his environment and unrefined command and control, then you see why Baseball America jumped Morales all the way to the #8 prospect in all of baseball before the 2008 season. Kevin Goldstein was just as effusive, ranking him #13, and describing him as an "upper-echelon big-league starter."
The Rockies decided Morales was ready to stick in the majors for good, despite a regular and postseason performance that screamed that wasn't the case. The 22-year-old began 2008 in their rotation, and just once did he have more strikeouts than walks in his five starts. A back injury cut his time in the majors short, and when he was able to throw again, it was for Triple-A Colorado Springs. He hadn't conquered that level before leaving it in 2007, and the second time around, the level conquered him. He walked nearly as many as he struck out, a non-surprise given he didn't have great control even prior to the back problems.
In 2009, another April injury ruined his season, as he strained his shoulder. He made two starts in the majors, and another eight in Triple-A, but he wasn't long for that role. The Rockies moved Morales, two injuries and two seasons removed from being a potential "upper-echelon big-league starter" into a bullpen role, one from which he'd never escape while with the Rockies.
Maybe the Rockies thought Morales could fix what ailed him in a bullpen role. Maybe the two-straight years with April injuries had them worried about his durability in the rotation in the long-term. It's hard to know for sure what the intentions were, though, as he continued to bounce between the majors and minors, and never took off as a reliever, either. The failure to break free from his bullpen sentencing and get back to the rotation is on the Rockies for rushing the development of a left-hander with issues as obvious as his potential, but it's also Morales' own doing -- he's the one pitching, after all, and while the high altitude of Colorado can be blamed to a degree, it's not as if he skipped out on road trips.
The Rockies were frustrated enough with Morales after five years --but just 147 innings -- that they shipped his career 4.83 ERA and 1.3 K/BB to Boston for a player to be named later or cash. Boston was in a desperate place, losing lefty Rich Hill to Tommy John surgery, and were relying on Tommy Hottovy to lead them to the promised land of southpaw bliss in his stead. Morales, a former elite-level pitching prospect, was both cheap and available, and the Red Sox took advantage, in the same way they did when the Rangers made then-failed prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia available less than a year before. Morales was a lottery ticket, but Boston was in need of just that.
Morales was a different pitcher almost immediately upon arriving in Boston. He threw 32 innings for the Sox, posting a career-high strikeout rate, career-best walk rate, his best ERA since his inaugural campaign -- if it's a stat, he was able to improve it while with the Sox. That's not a terribly large sample, but the change was both immediate and notable. It helps that, in his 34 frames in 2012, Morales has seen further improvement: fewer walks, more strikeouts, fewer long balls, and, maybe most importantly, success when stretched out or more than just a relief inning here and there.
In Daniel Bard's final start of the 2012 season, Morales came in relief in the second. He threw 4⅓ innings, despite his longest previous outing of the year being just two frames. Morales struck out four, walked none, and gave up just a pair of hits and no runs. The Sox would lose that game, but not because of anything the southpaw did. His next time out, in relief of Daisuke Matsuzaka's first start of the year, Morales threw three perfect innings, and struck out another three. These two appearances, and the fact there was no fallout in his arm after them, are why it was Morales who was tabbed to start in place of Josh Beckett, when the Texan was placed on the DL with shoulder inflammation.
In his two starts in place of Beckett, Morales has thrown 11 innings and struck out 17 while allowing one walk, four runs, and 11 hits. Combine it all together, and in June, Morales has thrown 18⅓ innings, posted a 1.96 ERA, and owns a 24-to-1 K/BB. Of his 254 pitches in that stretch, 75 percent were strikes, 17 percent of those swinging.
His fastball sits around 95-96 these days, but it's still a devastating offering that gets its fair share of swings-and-misses. His curve moves a bit better nowadays, too, as he's not at altitude sans air resistance, but the most significant improvement all around has been his command and control. He won't keep up his ridiculous K/BB of June, but he doesn't have to: he's plenty successful just repeating what he's done for Boston in the last year-plus.
The Red Sox are in need of rotation help with Clay Buchholz now out indefinitely, but that also means Morales has been gifted a second chance at starting, one that could have implications for both his and Boston's future -- Morales is under team control for two more years, and his first year of arbitration paid out a paltry $850,000. In a season in which Bard's conversion to relief didn't pan out, Morales very well might succeed at the same thing, and bring about a similar desired result anyway.
Things didn't work out with the Rockies, but this is a new and friendlier environment, and Morales is a more experienced southpaw than he was back in 2008. He might not ever be an elite, ace-type hurler like his potential suggested, but with each inning, he's showing himself capable of being much more than just a former starter banished to the bullpen.