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Nine lives

My initial impression of Matt Morris as a free-agent acquisition was that the Giants should duck and cover. The last thing the Giants needed was an oft-injured starter for a bazillion dollar, 50-year contract. My initial impression wasn't based in reality, though, as Morris is far from oft-injured. He had Tommy John surgery in 1998, came back in 2000, and has been good for about 30 starts a year ever since.

There could be a good reason for the mix-up, however. The Matt Morris that came into the league in 1997 was a phenom. He had control, power, movement; everything. One of the best games of the '97 season was a duel between Morris and Shawn Estes, with Estes coming away the victor in a 2-0 game. If Morris weren't such a force in '97, the Giants might not have been seduced by Jason Grilli. With a top-ten pick, and an immediate need in the rotation, it was easy for the Giants to get starry-eyed over a polished Seton Hall righty. Morris was fun to watch as a rookie.

That's not the same Morris we're used to seeing now. The non-Cardinal fan of the present mostly remembers seeing Morris on national TV in October of 2004 with his tongue hanging out and cartoon steam coming from his ears, lobbing zipless fastballs to the corners. He didn't even crack the Cardinals rotation for the playoffs this year. Red flag doesn't even begin to describe that last sentence.

Matt Morris has hopped from below-average to average in the last two seasons. His second-half slide in 2005 was appalling, probably costing him millions in guaranteed money. The Baseball Reference list of similar pitchers through age 30 isn't much more encouraging than that of Kevin Millwood. John Smiley, Tom Browning, Denny Neagle, Bill Gullickson, and Pat Malone all seem like good comparisons, and their careers were all pretty much finished by 33.

This post has, so far, unfairly made Morris out to be a combination of Brett Tomko and Osvaldo Fernandez. There's a twist. The Detroit News guessed Morris would get a two year deal. If that's the case get the sewing needles and rubbing alcohol, because I'm going get to get some nasty splinters from this Matt Morris bandwagon. At two years - maybe two years with a option that automatically vests when performance levels are reached - Morris is exactly what the Giants need. His downside, apart from the injury explosion every pitcher could be at any moment, would be as an innings-eating, league-average type. That might not be worth $6M or $7M, but it certainly isn't worthless, and the short contract would limit the damage. The upside to a guy like Morris can be found as recently as two seasons ago, when Morris was one of the better pitchers in the league.

I could live with three guaranteed years, but I wouldn't like it. The same contract given to Carl Pavano, Kris Benson, Russ Ortiz, or Jaret Wright? Forget about it. They'd be better off doubling the risk, money, and reward for A.J. Burnett. But if the two-year guess is accurate, even up to $8M or so a year, the Giants wouldn't be able to find a better risk for the short- and long-term. If $8M seems like too much, that's because it is. But the Giants really don't have too many options to throw money at this year, and there is a little bit of money to throw. Morris at two years/$16M is more of a worthwhile gamble than three years/$12M for a pitcher like Jason Johnson or Brett Tomko, and it keeps the farm system in better shape than if they had to trade for Jason Jennings or David Wells.

The caveat is that the information in the Detroit News article might have been from a Pistons beat writer filling in. The contract described doesn't seem realistic in a pitching-thin market. I heartily endorse Matt a point. Budgeting tens of millions of clams to a guaranteed third- and fourth-year of a Morris deal will foul up a team something fierce. I hope that team isn't the Giants. A team taking a chance on two years of Morris, with a creative bonus/option structure built in to the contract, would be making a slick move. I hope that team is the Giants.