Health criticism frustrating Jays’ Morrow

Tucked away from the free-agent flirtations and trade talk that dominate the off-season, one of the most important gains the Toronto Blue Jays can make for the 2014 season is quietly taking shape at a sports clinic in Tempe, Ariz.

Brandon Morrow, the fire-bolt right-hander whose ascension to ace status was interrupted by injuries the past two seasons, is feeling healthy and strong, the compression of the radial nerve in his forearm looking more and more like a thing of the past.

For several weeks now he’s been throwing, airing it out up to 120 feet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, playing regular catch on Tuesday and Thursdays. Next Monday, just as the general managers’ meetings begin in Orlando, Fla., Morrow will throw his first bullpen since his season-ending shutdown in July, a light 20–25 pitch workout that will present another important measuring stick.

“I’m encouraged,” Morrow says of his progress thus far. “I still haven’t gotten to the point where I can say that I’m over it, I guess. I need to get off the mound and throw downhill as close to 100 percent as (possible), to make sure that come game time it’s going to be good. I can throw long-toss all day with no problem—that’s just not good enough.

“That’s where I’m at right now, where everything feels good, but I haven’t really tested it.”

The testing process starts Monday and should provide both Morrow and the Blue Jays with a meaningful indication of where the 29-year-old’s health is at. If all keeps going well, the off-season suddenly looks significantly different in a very good way for general manager Alex Anthopoulos, with the opposite holding true if the searing pain in Morrow’s forearm makes an unexpected and unwelcomed return.

As things stand now, only R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are sure things for the Blue Jays rotation next year. Morrow, J.A. Happ, Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman are all candidates to fill out the staff. But realistically, Anthopoulos needs to add at least one if not two solid starters for his team to make a move in the standings.

Taking Morrow out of the equation would probably push the need to three starters for the Blue Jays to be a legit contender, rather than a club hoping for everything to fall into place.

That’s why Morrow’s work will be so pivotal in the weeks to come, even though there are critics who argue he shouldn’t be counted on at all in 2014, given all his time on the disabled list the past two years.

Such criticism has stung Morrow, who missed two months in 2012 with an oblique strain and before that had only two trips to the disabled list—two weeks in 2009 with triceps tendinitis and three weeks in 2011 with forearm inflammation. And it’s often forgotten that he logged 179.1 innings in 2011.

“To hear the questions that different people may bring up about your health, or ability to stay healthy without looking at all the numbers, it’s unfair to say those things when it’s been different reasons,” says Morrow. “Up until this year, I spent a total of (five) weeks on the disabled list for arm troubles and even before that I was labelled injury-prone because I had a sore arm in spring training a couple of times. It’s kind of funny. The fact I had the oblique injury last year and now this, all of a sudden I can’t stay healthy?”

Some of those gripes are likely tied to the internal and external frustrations of losing a pitcher with the potential to be a difference-maker for an extended period. In 2012, Morrow posted a 10-7 mark with a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts, evolving from an overpowering thrower into a more complete pitcher. While he maintained the ability to blow hitters away, he employed his curveball and changeup more effectively to induce earlier contact, thus allowing him to pitch deeper into games. Morrow appeared poised to take another step in 2013 but struggled with issues in his arm and back all year, receiving three cortisone shots over the course of the season to try and get him through it.

The last one, right into his forearm, came a few days after his aborted rehab start for single-A Dunedin on June 17, when he made it through just two ineffective innings. “It just didn’t really help at all,” Morrow says of the shot. “A month-and-a-half after doing all the rehab it was still the same.”

Eventually, renowned arm expert Dr. James Andrews prescribed a minimum of six weeks rest to let the nerve issue subside, ending Morrow’s season in late July. The Blue Jays rested him for eight weeks, the slow buildup leading him to his current throwing schedule and Monday’s bullpen.

So far, so good.

“There’s nothing now (in terms of pain), whereas in July when I was still throwing, it (felt) just good enough while long-tossing and then obviously not good at all when I would get up on the mound,” says Morrow. Some pain-free bullpen sessions over the coming weeks should give Morrow the peace of mind he needs to move past a frustrating season. Just like the Blue Jays and their fans, he’s looking forward to a fresh start.

“I think next year is going to be good for a lot of people,” Morrow says. “The second year with Gibby (manager John Gibbons), the second year with all the guys we had brought in, I think you’re going to see a big difference in how the team plays. Obviously that has a lot to do with health, as we saw this year. … With the same personnel, I don’t think there’s any reason that this team can’t do what was expected of us this past year.”

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