Real baseball is finally being played, meaning Opening Day is on the way. With that in mind, we'll be profiling the key players from the Red Sox roster leading up to the first regular season game. The focus will be on what we think is an important attribute or question surrounding these players in terms of their potential 2012 success.
Franklin Morales is a reliever these days. It's not quite where he was envisioned to be half-a-decade ago, when he was one of the game's top pitching prospects and expected to be a front line starter for the Colorado Rockies. He threw in the mid-90s. His curveball had some serious bend to it. His change-up wasn't as good as the other two offerings, but it was more than enough as a third pitch when paired with a fastball that touched the upper 90s and a curve that was plus-plus at its best. His command and control were a bit iffy at times, but it was partially due to his age and continued growth that messed with his mechanics, and the strikeouts helped negate the walks to a degree.
When things came together -- as they did in 2006 -- Morales was ridiculously good. He struck out 179 batters in 154 innings at High-A in 2006, posting a K/BB of 2.0 despite walking 5.2 per nine. Baseball Prospectus rated Morales the #33 prospect in baseball heading into 2007, and Baseball America followed suit by sticking him at #30. Splitting 2007 between Double- and Triple-A, Morales posted a 3.51 ERA but struck out just 7.4 per nine. His command clearly wasn't ready for the majors just yet, but the Rockies called him up anyway. He survived, posting a 3.43 ERA over 39-1/3 frames, but the 21-year-old struck out just 5.9 batters per nine and allowed a .278 BABIP despite Colorado's natural BABIP-enhancing tendencies.
The fact things didn't completely fall apart for him when he was called up too soon gave him even more prospect cred. Morales was the #8 prospect in Baseball America's Top 100 heading into 2008, and Kevin Goldstein rated him #13 at Baseball Prospectus. Goldstein ranked Morales as the Rockies' lone five-star prospect, giving him a perfect world projection as an "upper-echelon big-league starter." This is what happens when you're a 21-year-old lefty who can touch 99 mph, and follow that up with a ridiculous bender, control be damned. Lefties take awhile to figure that out sometimes, anyway.
Unless the player-in-question's team doesn't give them the time to figure it out. Morales dealt with a back injury in 2008, and threw 25 terrible innings for the Rockies. He spent most of the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but you can guess what happened to his control when a back injury was thrown into the mix. In 110 frames, Morales managed a K/BB of 1.0, and his prospect stock took a huge hit.
In 2009, it was a shoulder strain suffered in April that set the tone for the year. He was on the disabled list until mid-June and missed 48 games. He ended up succeeding at Triple-A this time around, though he didn't dominate. Rather than let Morales continue to develop at Triple-A -- he was still just 23 -- he was brought up once again as a reliever. His fastball regained its life here -- though whether it was due to his shoulder feeling better or the move to the bullpen is a bit debatable -- and he started to miss bats in the majors.
He once again was in the bullpen in 2010, but dealt with shoulder inflammation that shortened his season and also cut into his production. The next year, the Rockies dealt him to the Red Sox, where he remained in relief, but, for once, succeeded: Morales threw 32-1/3 innings, while posting the best K/BB and second-best strikeout rates of his career.
One change is obvious: Morales didn't have to deal with the most hitter-friendly park in the majors anymore. There's more to it than that, though, as Fenway is known for being plenty helpful to hitters from both sides of the plate. The change in the air is the real reason why Morales is more likely to fulfill his potential as a lefty reliever in Boston rather than Colorado.
The lack of air resistance in Colorado means the ball not only travels further when struck, but also moves less sharply coming out of a pitcher's hand. This affects all pitches with movement, but curveballs -- which rely entirely on how much and how hard they move through the strike zone -- are affected the most. Morales featured a plus-plus breaking ball that just couldn't get the same bite and bend on it in the thin air of Colorado Springs and Denver. That's not a problem in the northeast, though, and the curveball that made him such an intriguing left-handed prospect can once again move like it did when scouts saw him in the low minors.
Both his fastball and curve had slightly more (and different) movement on them while with Boston, and one would think that if you could split those Pitch f/x numbers further into just his home appearances while with the Rockies, you'd see a more drastic change given the more normal air of his road games helps to balance his overall numbers.
The pitcher that was in Colorado isn't the one the Red Sox have right now, as the environment just messed with his abilities too much out there, keeping him from his potential. Injuries might keep him from ever being the elite starter he could have been, but getting out of Colorado might give him time to finally become something of value in the majors.