At the risk of offering too much hyperbole, is Franklin Morales going to save the Red Sox?
The hard-throwing lefty was at his best during his third start of the season in Seattle last night, tossing seven shutout innings in a no-decision against the Mariners, who won the late game, 1-0, on a dropped ball by Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the bottom of the ninth. Unfortunately for Morales, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was at his lights-out best, going the distance for the win. Great theater if you could stay up for it.
There's been percolating discussion that the Mariners may look to move Hernandez before the trading deadline, because with two-and-a-half years remaining on his five-year, $78 million deal, they would likely receive a - no pun intended - king's ransom of young, offensive talent. Just look to Jacoby Ellsbury to see how waiting to deal a player under a longer term of contract can affect his trade market.
But imagine what that might take for the Red Sox to pull off. We're talking something along the lines of including some combination of Jose Iglesias, Ryan Kalish, Saltalamacchia, Ryan Lavarnway, etc. For a team that has recently seen life thanks to the infusion of youth, not sure that's the wisest move. A top-of-the-rotation guy, a bona fide, No. 1 ace, may be something they haven't had since our favorite mango fan fled town, but the price in July of 2012 is going to be a heck of a lot steeper than it may be in July of 2013 should Seattle hang onto its franchise player.
Meanwhile, Morales is only 1-0 in his three starts since subbing in for the disabled Josh Beckett, but has been impressive, allowing 14 hits and four earned runs over 18 innings of work with 24 strikeouts and only three walks. Felix Doubront, Beckett, and Clay Buchholz have gone through similar stretches at various points this season, but each started the season in the rotation. Morales is there by default right now and is turning into an exciting, emerging story. It would be suicidal to take him out of that role.
It appears Bobby Valentine is set to utilize a six-man rotation, once Buchholz emerges from the disabled list, until the All-Star break, a sign that Morales has earned his spot in a rotation that has taken its health hits lately. After all, he's been sparkling this month, positing a 1.42 ERA and a team-best 0.75 WHIP, and with each start he's opening more and more eyes.
This is a guy, mind you, the Colorado Rockies pretty much gave away last year after an erratic career in Denver, where he shuttled between the rotation and bullpen enough times to make even Tim Wakefield feel sympathetic. In eight innings as a starter in 2009, Morales allowed seven hits and three runs, a small sample size that tells virtually nothing. In 2008, he was terrible, a 6.39 ERA over 25 1/3 innings at the age of 22. In 2007, 3-2 with a 3.43 ERA. Morales started a total of 15 games for Colorado over three years, none past the age of 23. You could make the argument he was never fully given the chance to prove himself in the role in which he's currently flourishing.
"Morales was a different pitcher almost immediately upon arriving in Boston," writes SB Nation's Marc Normandin. "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."
Ace material? We might want to slow down there, but as Normandin points out, Morales was ranked the No. 30 prospect in the minors by Baseball America prior to the 2007 season. He's just 26, the same age Jon Lester was when he put together a 19-win campaign in 2010, and on a starting staff of aging, overpaid veterans, Morales and Doubront are shots of optimism moving forward. In 2012, Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, and even Doubront lately, have been erratic. There's also Daisuke Matsuzaka. And while it may only be three starts under his belt, Morales has been ever-impressive. Granted those three starts have come against two National League teams and the light-hitting Mariners (.667 OPS), but his sudden emergence has made him a player that could be more and more intriguing to watch.
Toe-to-toe with one of the game's best pitcher last night, Morales more than held his own. A starting rotation thirsting for consistency may have found relief in a guy that wasn't even supposed to be there, but is proving with each start that it just may be his rightful place. It's about time Colorado paid Boston back for Rolando Arrojo anyway.