Can Morales stay healthy as a starter, something he's never really been given the opportunity to even try?
Franklin Morales faced the Red Sox in the 2007 World Series as a starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, but by the time he made his way to Boston in 2011, he was exclusively a reliever. How he got to be in that role, in short, had a lot to do with how the Rockies handled their young, up-and-coming hurler. (Spoiler: poorly.) One thing that doesn't get much mention, though, is his health. Morales had some shoulder issues while with the Rockies, and though they mostly disappeared over the years, that body part came into the spotlight once more during his return to starting last summer.
Morales strained his shoulder in the spring of 2009, after a disappointing 2008 campaign, the blame for which could easily be put at the feet of the Rockies -- Colorado had pushed Morales to stick in the majors as a 22-year-old, despite the fact his stats from both the majors and minors in 2007 screamed that was not wise. The lefty would end up making just 10 starts total, with eight of those coming in the minors, in 2009, as the Rockies moved him to the bullpen. Morales, who just one year prior had been the eighth-ranked prospect in all of baseball, would never start another game for the Rockies.
Moving to relief didn't cause the shoulder issues to subside, as he dealt with inflammation in May of 2010. That was the end of his shoulder issues until 2012, though, when he dealt with shoulder weakness in camp, and was eventually placed on the 60-day disabled list in August with shoulder fatigue. Is this return to shoulder issues a concern for Morales going forward, a possible side-effect of his return to starting after so much time off?
Yes, but also no. It's a concern, in the sense that anytime a pitcher already has had an injury, the chances of further injury go up. However, Morales had to contend with shoulder weakness in 2012 one year ago today, missed 22 days while strengthening the area, and didn't get the opportunity to fully stretch out as a starter because of it. Morales ended up throwing all of 5-1/3 innings during the entirety of spring -- given this, it's not surprising that he struggled with his command and consistency during much of April.
What Morales did, in terms of stretching out to start for 2012 once he was needed, was throw 7-1/3 innings in relief in two appearances, nearly a week apart. Then, he started five of his next six appearances, finished out July in the bullpen, and temporarily went back to the rotation in August before his shoulder fatigue ended his season. Is it any surprise that, given this back-and-forth for a pitcher with a mild history of shoulder trouble that he would end up in the condition he did to end 2012? They didn't exactly mishandle him, but being stretched out mid-season for about a week isn't optimal, either. Such is the reality of a lack of starting depth, though.
The Red Sox are handling things a bit different this time around. Morales is being stretched out as a starter from the get go, and is expected to be the first line of defense should one of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront, or John Lackey need a replacement in-season. In that sense, if it turns out his shoulder cannot take the starting regimen and workload, it won't be as much of a problem for Boston as it was in 2012 -- their depth is in a much better place than it used to be. However, the best-case -- besides the rotation staying healthy, anyway -- is that the minor-league pitchers get to stay there and develop, while a healthy and effective Morales can drop in and out of the rotation as needed. For that reason, it's important his shoulder stays healthy.
Even if he doesn't end up needing to start, the health of Morales will be significant in the bullpen. There might not be room for Andrew Miller in the pen, and while Craig Breslow's own shoulder weakness isn't considered serious, it's easy to envision a scenario where the Red Sox find themselves short a reliable southpaw option in relief. Given all that, one hopes that a healthy spring, combined with preparing for the more rigorous role, will be enough to keep Morales' shoulder feeling good.