Morrow’s progress vital for Jays future success

Brandon Morrow. Keith Srakocic/AP

TORONTO – The most significant pre-trade deadline acquisition the Toronto Blue Jays may end up making this summer spent part of his morning Wednesday plucking clips of varying resistance off one wire and replacing them on another again and again and again.

This is rehabilitation, or at least one of the more mind-numbing aspects of it, for Brandon Morrow, the electric-armed right-hander who is working both diligently and tediously at rebuilding strength in the index finger tendon sheath he tore May 2.

When he returns, if at all since season-ending surgery is the alternative should rehab not work, is a question that’s slipped into the background during what’s become a month of success like few others in franchise history, but it may very well be among the most pivotal facing the club.

Liam Hendriks delivered six innings of two-run ball in Wednesday’s 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, but let’s be honest, barring a major surprise the Aussie right-hander’s effectiveness surely comes with an expiry date. The Rays launched missiles all over the field against him, with spectacular leaping catches against the wall by Anthony Gose in centre and Melky Cabrera in left saving him a couple of times, a Desmond Jennings drive into the fourth deck sailing some 10 feet foul to help him out in another instance.

Credit’s due – Hendriks competes well and pitches with guts, but eventually all the hard contact probably catches up with him. If and when that reality check comes, prospect Marcus Stroman is among the few internal options the Blue Jays still have, and despite all his promise success is no certainty.

Morrow’s progress – he’s about two weeks away from picking up a ball again and the best-case scenario envisions a return sometime in mid to late July – really, really matters.

“What I’m looking at right now is that I’m going to come back and have two months of the regular season, and hopefully pitch into October the way the team is playing right now,” Morrow told Sportsnet after his therapy session in Arizona. “My mindset is to prepare myself to come into a pennant race.”

The Blue Jays would certainly love for things to play out that way, and they very well may need them to in more ways than one.

While the 20-7 May surge has fuelled discussion of pre-deadline runs at some of the tantalizing pitching names expected to be in play, Jeff Samardzija of the Chicago Cubs chief amongst them, their ability to financially afford an impact move shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Remember that back in the spring the Blue Jays needed salary deferrals worth a total of $14 million from Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and R.A. Dickey to pay for free agent right-hander Ervin Santana. The plan gained union approval but fell apart when Santana bailed on what the Blue Jays thought was a done deal, joining the Atlanta Braves instead.

If the money wasn’t there then, there’s no reason to think it will be there in July with the Blue Jays already at their 2014 budget of roughly $135 million. General manager Alex Anthopoulos may be forced to seek trades that are revenue neutral – foisting Ricky Romero on someone for a prospect as part of a bigger deal might be one way to do it – in order to make a substantial addition.

All of that could change over the next two months and the purse strings may still loosen if the Blue Jays continue to play well, remain atop the American League East, attendance rises and the TV ratings spike further. But until that happens, money is so tight the Blue Jays won’t even have their usual war chest for next week’s draft.

So Morrow’s return may be it – a return to health that would function as a big addition at the trade deadline.

“That’s the way I’m thinking about it,” said Morrow. “I’m obviously not going to rush because that’s not going to help anybody, you’ve got to make sure I can pitch the way I expect myself to throw the ball. If I can do that and come back, I think it could be a big boost for the team at that point.”

The Blue Jays should have a reasonable read on what he might offer by the all-star break, if not in early July, which is when he should be on a rehabilitation assignment, barring setbacks. The way he pitches will go a long way in determining the club’s plans.

Still, Morrow is being careful not to skip any steps.

The injury came on the second to last of his 102 pitches in a five-inning outing against the Pittsburgh Pirates, on a slider to Starling Marte that caused the A2 pulley – a sheath that holds the tendon in place between the base knuckle and middle knuckle – to pull off.

Morrow had been experiencing pain in the area for about three weeks beforehand, getting some treatment for it between outings, but knew things were different when he felt a pop.

“When you feel a pop that’s not a good sign,” he said.

Immediately he was sent to see Dr. Don Sheridan, the Arizona specialist who treated his nerve issues last year, and a special MRI technique in which he held his fingers in A-OK position “showed that the tendon was bowstringing.”

His hand was immobilized for two weeks in a splint running up his forearm that looked Darth Vader-esque, and he’s since been shifted to a smaller glove to protect his finger from overwork. The area remains sore – Morrow still can’t stretch out his finger or make a fist – and rebuilding strength in his index finger is crucial since he pushes down with it when snapping his slider.

Morrow doesn’t think the soreness affected his performance on the mound, he was 1-2 with a 5.93 ERA and 1.720 WHIP over six starts, attributing his slow start instead to “trying to do a little too much at times.”

“That last game in Pittsburgh, I felt like maybe things were starting to change,” he said. “The Red Sox game (when he walked eight in 2.2 innings) was kind of an eye-opener to just go out there and give the team what it needs, you don’t have to do too much. Watching Mark (Buehrle) pitch, you don’t have to do too much, just make your pitches.

“That’s what I was doing in 2012. I wasn’t trying to dominate, I was just throwing strikes for the most part and things were taking care of themselves.”

All Morrow can do now is work hard and hope he gets the opportunity to apply what he’s learned later this season. Surgery would end his season – “it’s a six-month rehab, it’s actually like a mini Tommy John on your finger,” he explained – and perhaps his career with the Blue Jays, who hold a $10 million option on him for 2015 with a $1 million buyout.

Has that thought crossed his mind?

“I don’t think it will be (the last start),” said Morrow, who hopes to rejoin the Blue Jays in about three weeks, when Dr. Sheridan no longer needs to supervise the recovery. “I don’t think we’ll have to go to surgery, it’s not like a 50-50 thing. I wouldn’t put the odds of having the surgery as high as 50 per cent.”

Whatever the odds are, the Blue Jays really need this one to break the right way. Morrow’s injuries have left the team broken-hearted the previous two seasons, but an impactful late summer return sure would go a long way in mending a frustrating past.

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