Today in Blue Jays History: Jack Morris gave way to Frank Viola 30 years ago

30 years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays clinched the team’s biggest free agent in history, defeating the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox for the services of starting veteran Jack Morris. On December 18, 1991, Morris and his agent Dick Moss traveled to Toronto (before a possible trip to Boston the next day) and entered into a two-year contract with a guaranteed value of $ 10.85 million, with an option team over a third year for a potential total of $ 14.85 million.

In the broadest sense, it has worked very well for the Jays. Morris made 61 starts and pitched nearly 400 innings as the Jays ultimately secured the Promised Land by winning the World Series in his two seasons. From a “with or without you” (WOWY) perspective, the Jays have won the World Series 2 for 2 in seasons with Morris, and 0 for 43 otherwise (the only player for whom this is is right) . Flags float forever, and for many that could be the extent of signature analysis.

However, given that the Blue Jays made Morris the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, actual production was disappointing and value arguably abysmal. While Morris was ostensibly the ace of the 1992 rotation that ultimately saw the Jays dominate at 21-6, with a 4.04 ERA, he was more of a solid quality starter mid-rotation. Then, in 1993, he collapsed to a 7-12 record with an appalling 6.19 ERA, missing the end of the season and the playoffs with a partially torn elbow ligament.

Worse yet, for a guy who was signed on on the basis of being a big game pitcher (“Finally, a money pitcher,” exulted Dave Perkins in the Toronto Star, “Now there’s no doubts the pitcher who should start the playoffs next year. No repeat of the shoddy scenes from a few months ago… they have a dragon pitcher, someone who lives to pitch big games ”) , bombed Morris in the 1992 playoffs. At 0-3 in four starts with a 7.43 ERA, in fact no player did more to stop the Jays from winning (and only Roberto Alomar’s shot on Dennis Eckersley saved it 0-4). Even if he was in good health, he would not have deserved to be on the playoff list in 1993.

What’s particularly interesting in light of this is the alternative the Blue Jays had if Morris had chosen the Red Sox over them. After agreeing to sign, they withdrew their offer to Frank Viola, who then agreed to sign a three-year contract with Boston for $ 13.9 million.

There’s no way a comparison of the two wouldn’t be tinted with hindsight, but I can’t think the Jays would have been better off chasing Viola in the first place. It is almost indisputable that if the two were free agents 30 years later, the pecking order would be very different. This is what I want to delve into, but first a bit of background and context needed.

The 1991 Blue Jays started the season with a rotation of Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, David Wells and rookie Denis Boucher. At the end of May there were big problems as Boucher was demoted in the middle of the month and then Dave Stieb struggled with back problems. Originally seen as a short-term issue that would cost a few starts, a herniated disc cost him the rest of the season as he made his last start on May 22 (more sadly, his career was effectively over).

Juan Guzman entered the rotation in early June, delivering a massive blow to the arm and plugging a hole. To plug the other hole and push the Jays over the edge in the mediocre, wide-open AL East, in late June Pat Gillick came out and got the knuckleballer and impending Cleveland free agent Tom Candiotti. . The price tag was steep, with three highly regarded young players going the other way at Mark Whiten, Glenallen Hill and Boucher.

But Candiotti was a bona fide frontline pitcher (3.34 ERA in 624.2 innings 1988-90) having a Cy Young caliber season (2.24 ERA in 108.1 innings on the rally). And he’s been huge for the Blue Jays, posting a 2.98 ERA in 19 starts with 129.2 innings. However, his last three starts have been tough and then his two ALCS starts have gone badly (7.2 innings, 8.22 ERA) as the Jays were easily knocked out by Minnesota in five games.

The bad times collapse was even more glaring given the contrast with Morris, who had won his two ALCS starts and then won two more in the World Series in a total of three good starts. Famous, it culminated in beating Tom Glavine in Game 7, a full shutout in 10 innings. Morris signed with his hometown Twins in February, deciding to leave Detoir after 14 seasons.

The Jays were interested, but Morris insisted on the right to become a free agent again after the season (at that time, players could not become a free agent within five years of the exercise as long as their team offered salary arbitration under a provision of the CBA known as “repeat rights” which was eliminated in the post-strike CBA of 1996). The Twins were prepared to guarantee they wouldn’t offer arbitration, so Morris signed a one-year deal for $ 3.7 million with a 1992 player option at $ 3.65 million ( that he refused to test the market again).

Heading into the 1991-92 offseason, the Jays’ first priority was to re-sign Candiotti. Attracting free agents north of the border was seen as a challenge, so the Jays tended to focus on retaining their own players. Also, the common perception back in the days when young players were traded for a veteran was that if they walked, it was a misuse of assets.

More concretely, with Stieb undergoing surgery and a big question mark, they needed a legitimate arm alongside Key, Guzman, Stottlemyre and Wells to cement the rotation towards finally reaching the World Series. There were already some detractors considering Candiotti’s stumbling late in the season (Dave Perkins was particularly vitriolic), but if not for Candiotti, the Jays had to pivot elsewhere.

In early December, a day after Bobby Bonilla redefined the pay scale by signing a $ 29 million contract with the Mets, Candiotti signed with the Dodgers for $ 15.5 million over four years. Hailing from Southern California, he had a strong preference to return to one of the local teams, but the fourth year was such a big factor. The Blue Jays team’s policy was to only guarantee three years, and although they were creative in easily discharging years beyond that, they wouldn’t give up the policy.

So as the winter meetings in Miami Beach approached, there were still two frontline free agent pitchers available: Jack Morris and Frank Viola.

Morris’s preference was to return to Minnesota, but they were having budget issues and couldn’t / wouldn’t budge from their initial two-year guaranteed offer of $ 8-9 million, with a third-year option. for a total of approximately $ 13.5 million. This opened the door for other suitors.

For her part, Viola had turned down a three-year Mets $ 13 million extension before the season, before going on a lackluster 13-15 season with a 3.97 ERA (worse than the league average) in 231.1 sleeves. They weren’t interested in bringing him back, spending a lot of money on Bonilla and Eddie Murray, before dealing with Bret Saberhagen in meetings.

Initially, the Jays at least professed no interest in Viola, but after making their offer to Morris early in meetings (reported two years and over $ 10 million guaranteed, with a third-year option until $ 15 million), they returned to Viola. The exact terms weren’t made clear, but Gillick’s public position at the end of the meetings was that they were happy with both and that it was up to whoever agreed first.

It was clear, however, that Toronto and Boston were both reserving their best deals for Morris until he decided, with Viola as the fallback option. Morris was probably going for the third guaranteed year, and when neither of them made up their minds and prompted the Red Sox to look to Viola. In the end, the cash salaries were very similar ($ 5.35M / $ 4.5M for Morris in 1992-93; $ 5.4M / $ 4.5M for Viola). Viola got the guaranteed extra year (being five years younger) at $ 4 million, the same take-home pay as Morris’s net option for 1994.

Viola ended up getting a much better deal. In 1992, he pitched 238 innings for a strong 3.44 ERA in the LA East, beating Morris. He followed that up with a solid 1993, 183.2 innings at a 3.12 ERA. 1994 ended in a loss as his career was indeed over, but two very good years and ~ 8 WAR (6 fWAR / 10 bWAR) in the first two seasons more than warranted the contract. This would have been especially suited to the big Jays contributions in 1992-93, and then they fell anyway.

This is of course retrospective, but what about looking to 1991? Beyond the tale of being a big game pitcher (worth less than nothing in the end), what Morris had to recommend was to be an enduring workaholic. Over the previous 10 years, Morris had an average of 34 starts and 249 innings. While he’s had some great seasons, overall it was more solid than spectacular, with a 3.72 ERA (92 ERA, or 8% points below the league average) .

But Viola was not left out in this department either. In his nine full seasons in MLB starting in 1983, he averaged 35 starts and 246 innings. Equally a workaholic, and does a bit better at preventing races (3.64 ERA, 89 ERA-). Prior to his 1991 down, he had emerged as a 1987-90 borderline ace (74-46, 2.97 ERA in 1017.2 innings, 22 fWAR / 26 bWAR).

Morris, on the other hand, had a downtrend before the 1991 rebound. At the age of 33-35, from 1988 to 1990, he posted a mediocre ERA of 4.40 in 655 innings. While the most recent season deservedly receives the most weight, in the larger context of a pitcher approaching his 30s, today we contextualize much more of the dead bounce that he turned out to be.

For his part, Viola had a few yellow flags due to an injury. The most talked about elbow chips, but according to his agent Craig Fenech, this was not largely responsible for the drop in performance. On the contrary, he had a cyst under one of his fingernails that made it difficult for him to use his cursor much or have a feeling of reduced speed, and in the second half he had largely confined himself to fast balls. But it had been treated surgically after the season and was no longer a problem for the future.

All in all, while elbow issues would still be a concern for pitchers in their 30s with a heavy workload (and eventually caught up with it in 1993 batten and required Tommy John in 1994), it would be even more so for a pitcher in his late 30s (and has indeed caught up with Morris as well). The risk was not excessive with three years guaranteed (especially being just one more than Morris while having five years and a thousand sleeves less).

I don’t think it is pure hindsight to say that I wish the Jays had taken on Viola rather than Morris 30 years ago. I certainly think that today it would have been the opposite, Viola being the most wanted and commanding a much bigger contract.

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