Avery Bryan Morris, the 6-3, 200 pound righty, was touted as the guy with the most upside in the Jay Bay deal, outshining Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss in the scouts' eyes.
It hasn't exactly worked out that way yet, but hey, give it time. The kid's only 22 (he'll be 23 in March), and hopefully he'll get through 2010 in one piece and with a more polished delivery than the player the Bucs got in 2008.
A native of Wodbury, Tennessee, he threw for Tullahoma High, and pretty well, too - his first two games during his senior year were no-hitters. Tampa Bay noticed, and selected him in the third round of the 2005 draft. He passed on signing after a $1M bonus offer from the short-pocketed Rays was withdrawn.
Morris went off to Motlow State Community College, not exactly a powerhouse. He mowed down his overmatched foes and finished the year 10-1 with an 0.82 ERA. That's good work even if you're in a beer league, and he became the 29th rated prospect by Baseball America for the next draft.
He was a first round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006, taken with the 26th selection, a compensatory slot for losing Jeff Weaver. The Big Blue ponied up and inked him quickly for $1,325,000.
It was off to the Pioneer League's Ogden nine, where he went 4-5 with a 5.13 ERA in 79-2/3 innings of work. Morris ran up some startling numbers - 40 walks, somewhat balanced by 79 whiffs. He was bringing the heat at 96-97 MPH; he just wasn't sure where it was going.
Morris missed all of 2007 and early 2008 with Tommy John surgery. He recovered, and went to Class A Great Lakes in the Midwestern league, where he posted a 2-4 slate with a 3.20 ERA in 81-2/3 frames. His numbers came back to earth, with 72 strikeouts and 31 walks.
He entered 2008 as the #12 prospect in the Dodger farm system according to BA, and was generally ranked in the top 15 by the other services.
Then Morris came to Pittsburgh, and finished up with a cup of coffee at Hickory. He was shut down for the last month of the season due to bicep soreness, and then had offseason surgery correct a previous issue with his big toe.
With all that, he came ready to pitch in 2009. But just as the season was ready to kick off, he was bothered by shoulder inflammation and didn't come back until June 7th. Beginning to notice a trend?
It was not a good year for Morris, at least at the outset. He was ripped in June and July pitching for High A Lynchburg. After one dismal start, he ragged the ump and blew up in the dugout, managing to get himself suspended by the Buccos, who insist on good citizenship if not good pitching.
While serving his suspension, Morris went to Bradenton to work on his mechanics. Apparently, a light went on. He recorded four quality starts in his last six games for the Hillcats following his wrist slap, after having just one in his ten prior starts.
As for him being a head case, we think not. His eruption at Lynchburg is the only blot on his record, and we suspect frustration got the upper hand on him that day.
The Pirates are working on what they see as the core issue regarding his control issues and arm injuries, a funky, high effort delivery that finishes with him releasing the ball across his body.
That's the tinkering the Pirate pitching mechanics worked on correcting at Bradenton, trying to smooth out his motion and straightening his release angle. In a couple of interviews, Morris says his arm feels as good as it ever has, and the results after his visit to Pirate City seemed to bear fruit.
Morris also was one of the Pirate prospects that was fairly limited in digging into his pitching tool kit. He throws a low-90s fastball, touching 95, a plus curve, and a work-in-progress changeup with OK sink.
But the Bucco suits pretty much kept him throwing the heat, both because of his injury history and because that's how they start all their young pitchers off, by preaching fastball control.
For his future, well, a lot rides on whether his new and improved delivery proves repeatable and relieves the stress on his arm. Morris has just 228-1/3 professional innings under his belt, so he needs to get some game action.
If he holds up, he's projected to be a number 2 or 3 pitcher in a MLB rotation, and that's where the Pirates see his value.
If not, they could eventually swing him to the dark side and look at him as a closer; that fastball/curve combo for an inning could be his ticket to the show. But that's definitely Plan B; they much prefer him to pitch every fifth day.
Morris could begin the 2010 season with Altoona, if the Pirates promote him as aggressively as most of their pups. But with his lack of experience and arm woes, he could just as easily start at High A Bradenton until he shows he's ready to handle the jump. (EDIT - Morris will start 2010 in Altoona)
(Next - #12 Quinton Miller)