Avery Bryan Morris, 25, attended Tullahoma High School in Tennessee, where he was named a Louisville Slugger All-American following his senior season in 2005. He went crosstown after he graduated and became a Motlow State CC Buck (RHP David Weathers, 19 year MLB vet, is their only other big league alum).
The teen was drafted by the Tampa Bay in the third round of the 2005 draft, right out of high school, but begged off to attend Motlow. The freshman ended up having one of the top seasons in Buck history, posting a 10-1 record with 122 strikeouts and an 0.82 ERA. He re-entered the 2006 draft and was chosen in the first round this time (26th overall) by the Los Angeles Dodgers, inking a deal worth $1,325,000.
He was sent to the short-season Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League. Morris was a talented but wild child. His record was 4-5/5.13 in 59-2/3, fanning 79 and walking 40. Swing and miss stuff is sexy, and he was voted by Baseball America as the top prospect in the League. Morris didn't get a chance to live up to that rep right away, as he missed the entire 2007 season after Tommy John surgery.
In 2008, Morris played for the Dodgers A farm club, the Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League. The righty was 2-4/3.20, with 72 K in 81-2/3 IP. In July, he was traded to the Pirates as part of the three team trade that sent Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox and also netted Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss and Chris Hansen for Pittsburgh.
The Pirates, who saw enough to believe his arm was back after the TJ surgery, sent Morris to their Class A club at Hickory in the South Atlantic League. He made three starts for the Crawdads, walked 12 guys in 14 innings, and was shut down with pain in his right shoulder that was affecting his range of motion. The Pirates said it wasn't anything serious, but it would bite Morris the following year.
Morris was assigned to the Lynchburg Hillcats, the Pirates' Carolina League A team, but it took him a while to get on the mound. He had to recover from surgery for a torn ligament in his toe and from tendonitis in his right shoulder, last year's late-season pain. It took nearly two months to get him pitching.
While in Lychburg, he posted a 4-9 record with a 5.57 ERA, but the 'Cats made the playoffs and Morris won the fifth and deciding game of their first-round series. It was a frustrating year for Morris, who was suspended indefinitely in August for unprofessionalism after getting snarky with a man in blue. Much of the frustration came from the Bucs rebuilding his motion to try to protect his shoulder, and having him serve up a heavy dose of stat-busting heaters until he was where they wanted him to be mechanically.
Morris was the Opening Day starting pitcher for the Bradenton Marauders during their first game in franchise history in 2010, playing alongside Starling Marte, Tony Sanchez, Brock Holt, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. In eight starts, he went 3-0/0.60 in 44-2/3 innings, with the lowest ERA among starters in minor league baseball. On May 16th, Morris became the first Marauder in franchise history to get promoted when he was called up to AA Altoona.
He went 6-4/4.25 for the Curve, and by mid-season was working out of the pen. It wasn't because of pitching problems, but because the Pirates wanted to limit him to around 130 IP, and he was starting to show signs of wearing down after 100 frames. He stayed healthy for the entire season and threw for a career-high 133-2/3 innings with 124 strikeouts. Baseball America ranked him at #6 on the Pirate Top Ten Prospects list entering the 2011 season.
Morris was invited to camp in 2011, and eventually was sent back to the Curve. He spent the entire season in Altoona, which was a setback to his timetable. He also was converted to the pen. The righty started three games and then went on the DL with an oblique injury. Morris came back in May, first from the pen to build up stamina, then started three more times with disappointing results, and by June became a permanent reliever. He seemed to thrive there, pitching better and adding a couple of ticks to his heater. His line was 3-4-3/3.35, with 29 of his 35 outings from the bullpen.
He began the 2012 season with the AAA Indianapolis Indians. He joined the Pirates for the first time on June 24th, watched a game, and went back down when Jeff Karstens came off the DL. Morris was 2-2-14/2.67 with the Tribe, collecting 69 K in 71 IP. He was recalled again on September 10th after Indy's playoffs, and made his MLB debut on September 14th, tossing a scoreless inning against the Cubs.
Oddly, Clint Hurdle didn't use him much, as Morris just worked five innings in five appearances, giving up one earned run on two hits with two walks and six whiffs. He should have been in line to have gotten a pretty heavy dose of work, as he enters 2013 out of options and so has to be on the roster, because if he's not, he'll surely be on someone else's.
Morris' fastball averaged 93-94 during his brief Pittsburgh audition. He features a cutter/slider combo with a show-me curve, which was his go-to pitch as a starter, and got 20% swinging strikes with a 30% K and 10% walk rate during his brief stay in Pittsburgh. Converted starter Morris seems to be the logical candidate to replace Brad Lincoln as a multi-purpose arm, capable of being a set-up guy or tossing a couple or three innings if needed, although it's possible the Bucs see Chris Leroux in that role.
Though he didn't get a lot of work, he's a cinch to be on the roster when the Bucs break camp in the spring. Beside his lack of options, there should be a couple of holes in the pen that need filled no matter what bullpen scenario the FO decides on in 2013.