Franklin Morales was a highly-touted starting pitching prospect for the Colorado Rockies. For a multitude of reasons, that career path didn't work out, but the Red Sox haven't forgotten his old role, despite his new one, and it was Morales who got the call to start in place of the injured Josh Beckett on Sunday.
The Sox had stretched Morales out as of late, with his last two appearances in relief totaling 7-1/3 innings, and the change in length didn't harm his performance, with seven strikeouts, no walks, just two hits, and no runs allowed. Most importantly, for a pitcher who in the past has struggled with his command, Morales threw 72 percent strikes, allowing him to toss just 88 pitches over those seven-plus frames.
That kind of efficiency was around once more for Morales against the Cubs on Sunday, with the lefty throwing 81 percent strikes on 80 pitches through five innings. Had Morales already been starting, it's likely he would have gone deeper than this. In just one inning did Morales throw fewer than 70 percent strikes, and it wasn't due to living too much on the fat part of the plate. Morales sequenced his fastballs, change-up, and curve very well throughout the game, and located them for called strikes consistently. He had plenty of swing-and-miss stuff too, though, inducing 14 whiffs, including seven on his four-seamer. Not bad for his first start since 2009.
That four-seam fastball didn't lose much zip, either, with Morales throwing the pitch at an average of 94-plus miles per hour, after sitting 95-96 as a reliever with it. His change-up had a little bit taken off of it as well, keeping the 10-11 mph difference between the two offerings around, and as usual, his slow curve was 74-75.
Command and control have always been issues for Morales, but there are understandable extenuating circumstances. A young, flame-throwing southpaw in the Rockies system, Morales walked tons of hitters, but generally missed enough bats to compensate, with the assumption that he would better harness his stuff with experience, as many a lefty has in the past. The Rockies saw his career interrupted repeatedly by injuries -- shoulder strain, inflammation, back problems -- and eventually shifted him to the bullpen, where he saw a bit more health.
That wasn't supposed to be his gig, though. Morales was a top-100 prospect twice according to Baseball America, and at impressive spots: #33 heading into 2007, and #8 after not embarrassing himself in the majors when he was called up before he was ready for the task. This was a pitcher with serious upper 90s velocity and movement, with a great, plus bender, and a change-up that, while not at the level of those two offerings, was more than enough of a third pitch. The bullpen is not where an arm like this is supposed to be, but between the injuries and his home environment, it's where he ended up.
It's not often that moving from the NL West to the AL East is a positive, but when you're a pitcher who has spent his time at Coors Field, that's the case. Morales left the thin air of Colorado, where the movement on his pitches was adversely affected as it is for anyone. He left behind pitching at a mile of altitude, from a place where many hurlers before him have succumbed to injury after injury after throwing substantial innings.
With the Red Sox, Morales has 61 innings, 60 strikeouts, and, most importantly, 2.8 walks per nine innings pitched. His 3.2 K/BB with the Sox is the first time he's been over three with a club, majors or minors, ever, and it's unsurprisingly resulted in an ERA nearly a run-and-a-half better than what he produced with Colorado over five years.
He'll likely get more opportunities to start with Beckett on the disabled list and Aaron Cook not ready to step in just yet, especially after his initial success. The allure of his previous success as a starter in the minors, and the potential scouts saw in him then, makes him an intriguing piece for the Red Sox going forward. Can be be the team's fifth starter down the stretch, if Daniel Bard doesn't work things out as a starter in the minors, and Daisuke Matsuzaka continues his multi-year run of frustration? Can he be starting pitching depth for a club that already has a crowded 25- and 40-man roster, if there's no room in the rotation, allowing the team to focus their attention elsewhere at the trade deadline?
He's a pitcher they have control over for another two years, both of them arbitration-eligible, and for that reason combined with the constant need for rotation depth, seeing if he can work out as a starter makes sense in the short time that Beckett's injury allows. It's too early to go past that and make any assumptions, but we might know a bit more about a stretched-out Morales in a couple of weeks, for good or bad.