This isn't going to end pretty. Wagering on Matt Morris to be worth $9M in 2008 is like betting on Howie Long to win a Tony that same year for starring in a Broadway adaptation of Firestorm. Morris has been under the knife a couple of times already, and his second-half slide last year is more than a little worrisome. This contract, at least as it is reported, has serious potential to foul up future budgets. There was little choice for the Giants, though, but to go after one of the expensive free agent pitchers available. All pitchers are risks to self-destruct at any time, and all free agent pitchers are overpaid. The team didn't have the players to make a trade, and they didn't have any other players to cheaply fill the hole through the farm system. Almost by definition, the Giants were going to have to get an overpaid risk to self-destruct. Considering the position they put themselves in, at least the Giants did well for next year.
The Giants window for contending is being propped open by a 41-year old dowel showing serious signs of dry rot, and the future of the team is beyond bleak. The Giants don't have a position player worth keeping or counting on past next season. There's a hyperbole disclaimer: it's silly to completely rule out a team contending several years in the future. Dan Ortmeier could miraculously morph into a 40-40 player, and the team could make four or five deft free agent moves to have the best offense in the game. If you thought the White Sox were about three years away from a championship in 2002, you also probably have a safety deposit box filled with Joe Borchard and Jon Rauch rookie cards. Things can change quickly for a franchise, and in ways that are hard to anticipate.
That noted, it's pretty easy to recognize the Giants are a mess going forward. The only players worth building around are a couple of pitchers, only one of whom has really proven anything in the majors. The team's best position player prospects haven't cracked A-ball, and not one of them is a sure thing to even reach the majors in the next two years, much less produce at a high level. Organizations counting on filling each and every hole through free agency will eventually step in a steaming pile of reality, seriously overpaying for players like Carl Pavano in an offseason thin at select positions. But with the current starting lineup filled with players on the way out, and a minor-league system bereft of blue-chip building blocks, the Giants seem like candidates to get trapped in that kind of free agency vortex.
Even considering the painful season for the Giants in 2005, there are a few things going in the favor of next year's team. Bonds will surely play more games, at least, and he didn't forget how to hit while he was injured. Moises Alou and Ray Durham are very solid performers when healthy. Omar Vizquel's defense combines with a slightly below-average bat to make a shortstop worth having. Randy Winn isn't going to keep hitting a home run every three at-bats, but he's a nice centerfielder to have in the lineup. Jason Schmidt is a candidate to bounce back, and the promise shown by Noah Lowry and Matt Cain could manifest itself sooner rather than later. The bullpen looks very solid. The division is still awful. These are all fairly lukewarm endorsements, but they add up to a team decent enough to not give up on. Given the tarot cards on the table, it's more than that. It's a team worth putting a last-gasp effort into, and that wasn't going to be done with bargain pitchers like Elmer Dessens. The Giants tried something similar with Brett Tomko, and they almost got away with it. Now, with the window closed even more, it isn't the time to try again.
Morris has shown the ability to be an outstanding pitcher. There are pitchers who stop allowing hits at their normal rate for a season, have their ERAs shrink, and parlay it all into a nice contract before reverting back to their old form. There are pitchers who hide behind spacious home ballparks, giving everyone a rude awakening when things start to go wrong in a new and smaller home. These scenarios don't describe the good years from Morris. When he's on and helping his club, it's because he's keeping his walks down and his strikeouts up. It's because he's using the command of his fastball to set up his good breaking pitches. In his best years, there was never a doubt as to how he was doing it. In the first half of last year he strung together a whole bunch of vintage Morris performances. In the second half of the season, he was Tomko at Coors on two day's rest. Exactly what that second half meant is debatable, and the Giants are putting about $30M on the contention it was a harmless trend that should be ignored.
Any time a pitcher fades like that, injury is the first thing that comes to mind. A physical is the only thing holding this deal up, so if a shoulder filled with cottage cheese is what caused Morris to fade, the Giants should catch it. The ability to pop the hood and poke around takes a little of the sting out of the financial commitment. Morris had shoulder surgery a little over a year ago, which makes his first half that much more impressive. It's not fanboy optimism to think Morris was simply tired by the end of the year, and his stamina should come back next season. If there are no obvious physical problems, there's very good reason to be proud of a rotation featuring Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, Noah Lowry, and Matt Cain for next season.
If the Giants didn't sign Morris, it isn't as if they were going to jump in the Carlos Delgado race, or suddenly be able to trade Todd Linden for Miguel Tejada. The money would have gone to a faux Morris, and the savings might have been applied to the bench. All things being equal, this is a bad contract; an overreaction in a pitching-thin market. Things are definitely not equal, though. The Giants are Uma Thurman, flopping around on Eric Stoltz's floor. Matt Morris may or may not be a sturdy syringe filled with adrenaline, but there were hardly any other options that were automatically preferable for 2006. I look forward to watching Matt Morris pitch next season, and will plug my ears any time another future season is mentioned.