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March 20, 2007 at 12:31 PM

Feierabend cut

Just arrived in cloudy Tucson after a two-hour drive through the desert from Peoria. The talk in Mariners camp is still all about young Brandon Morrow, the first-rounder who’s been unhittable this spring and just might make it on the major league roster come April 2.
One youngster who won’t be headed north is Ryan Feierabend, who got smoked like a Cuban stogie in Mesa yesterday and will benefit from increased innings in Class AAA Tacoma. Feierabend was always ticketed for Class AAA, so this really has nothing to do about yesterday’s eight-run throttling laid on him by the Chicago Cubs over just two innings. The cases of Feierabend and Morrow are both different, despite the fact they are 21 and 22, respectively, and have enjoyed early success.
Keeping Morrow and his high-90s fastball and devastating splitter would give the Mariners a legitimate bullpen option they may not have if J.J. Putz can’t make it north with the club. The team has already seen some spring struggles by Jon Huber, one of the hard-throwing right handers they have always hoped to bring north, while George Sherrill has been a mess. So, a decision to vault Morrow several minor league levels to a big-league shot — which has yet to happen, mind you — would be done in the hopes of adding value to a bullpen with a number of question marks attached to it.
Would Feierabend have added similar value? That’s highly debatable. He has shown signs of being close to a major league caliber pitcher. But the Mariners already have a left handed long reliever in Jake Woods who has enjoyed some success in this role. There is no evidence that Feierabend at present represents a significant upgrade over Woods. In other words, there is no real value in adding him now. As a short-inning guy perhaps? Again, where is the proven track record in that role? There certainly isn’t any in the majors.
Better to keep Feierabend in Tacoma, where he can learn from the things he did wrong this spring — and judging by yesterday, he is still not a perfect package — and log the innings needed to be a successful starter. I’m sure the Mariners share this thinking. Why mess with the mind and arm of a very talented lefty who could be pitching in Seattle’s rotation just 12 months from now?
With Morrow, it’s a little different. He also is not perfect, but has yet to be dominated by major league hitters. In fact, he continues to dominate them. The new line of thinking in the majors, when it comes to pitchers, is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In other words, why send them back down a notch, or two, or three, if they show they can succeed at the highest level?
Will this line of thinking pan out in Morrow’s case? I don’t know, but frankly, I’d be interested in finding out. During my years covering the Toronto Blue Jays, I witnessed three different cases of late-inning relievers being fast-tracked to the majors: Billy Koch, Jason Frasor and Brandon League.
Each of the cases ended in different results.
Koch became an instant success story when, barely out of Class AA, he was promoted in May 1999 to replace Robert Person as the team’s closer. The rest, as they say, is history. Koch became a very successful major league closer, first with the Blue Jays from 1999 to 2001 before he was traded to Oakland for third baseman Eric Hinske.
With the A’s, Koch became a dominant ninth-inning reliever, up until he was tagged by A.J. Pierzynski of the Minnesota Twins for a crushing, late-game home run in the 2002 ALCS. Koch was never the samer after that, was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Keith Foulke, lost weight and velocity on his fastball and has been out of baseball for a while. But promoting him early was certainly the right call.
Things initially worked out for Frasor when the Blue Jays took him, once again just a few games out of Class AA, and made him their closer in 2004. Toronto was still high on its own Moneyball fumes back then had made a critical mistake in trying one of those closer-by-committee approaches that almost never works. Frasor saved 15 of his first 16 and literally carried the team on his back — alongside newly-promoted setup man Vinnie Chulk — until that summer’s all-star break. Alas, that’s when his youth and inexperience caught up to him. Turns out Frasor had made like a 100-meter specialist trying to run a marathon and was out of gas by August. He and Chulk both heaved and panted across the finish line, their lines growing uglier by the day.
Frasor was spoon-fed assignments in 2005 after Seattle’s current starter, Miguel Batista, became the Jays new closer that year. The Jays tried to give Frasor more responsibility last season, but he floundered early and was in the minors by May. He barely rescued his major league career late last season and is projected to be in the Toronto bullpen this year. But he certainly did not become another Koch.
Then, there’s the curious case of Hawaiian flamethrower Brandon League, once dubbed Toronto’s closer of the future. He did the September call-up thing in 2004, then was promoted to the Jays by Opening Day of 2005. But that experiment blew up in Toronto’s face when League torched one too many early April games and was shipped back to the minors. He was briefly promoted in July of that year, for emergency purposes, but got pounded like some nursery school Play-Doh and was immediatey demoted again. His entire mound routine was reworked, his arm angle raised, then lowered, then raised again. Nothing seemed to work, though the Jays saw enough last year in the minors and in a late-season call-up to make League their primary set-up man this season.
But did that early promotion benefit League? No way.
By the way, Cha-Seung Baek and Renee Cortez were also demoted today. No big deal there. The only reason I mention it is that Baek did enjoy a 4-1 post-all-star record for Seattle last year, though any chance of making the rotation this spring vanished when the Mariners signed Jeff Weaver. Baek’s only hope was to enjoy a scintillating spring and beat out Jake Woods for the long relief job. But Woods is a lefty, the M’s wanted him in the bullpen and Baek did not come close to shining. End of discussion.
This is for “jp17” in the comments thread. As I mentioned, the three Toronto examples were not used to cite support for keeping Morrow with the team. They were examples of three guys being promoted early. Koch was just seven games out of Class A ball (all in Class AAA) when made a full-time major league closer. League was three games (all as a September call-up) removed from Class A ball when named to Toronto’s bullpen for Opening Day of 2005. Frasor was 38 games out of Class A (35 in Class AA and three in Class AAA) when he became Toronto’s closer.
Sorry if those don’t exactly match Morrow’s track record, but they are the best I can do from a personal vantage point. We can talk about Huston Street of the A’s if you’d like, but I wasn’t around him on a daily basis and didn’t see how the pressures of early promotion impacted him.
From my firsthand viewpoint of Koch, Frasor and League, I can tell you the early promotion was:
Koch: Good
Frasor: So-so
League: Bad
And most short relievers inevitably begin their careers as starters. And many starters of the future begin their big-league careers in the bullpen to break them in slowly. Kelvim Escobar of the Los Angeles Angels broke into the bigs as a closer, then became a starter, a closer and a starter again. He saved 14 games as a big-league closer in 1997, at age 21, with just 15 games of experience beyond Class A ball. If you’ve got the stuff, you’ve got the stuff. Morrow hasn’t perfected enough pitches (i.e. more than two) to be a big league starter just yet. But his fastball and splitter (and a developing slider) make him a potential bullpen candidate. I wouldn’t worry about the starter/reliever thing too much in this case.



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