9. Can Reyes and Morton be effective?

Jo Jo Reyes

What do the Braves do with Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton?


It's easy to get frustrated with young pitchers and lose patience. Not many come up and sail through their first seasons in the major leagues, a la Jair Jurrjens. Most have to simply get their feet wet, and the process can sometime be painful.

There were hopes Jo Jo Reyes had already finished his painful time when he first came up in 2007. There were clear signs of his talent, but the consistency was just not there – yet. But at only 22, the Braves knew they had a young arm with potential that would hopefully get better in time.

Reyes had won over his manager, who believed Reyes was apart of the Braves future. Bobby Cox thought Reyes could be a number two or three starter in the big leagues. That's how impressive Reyes was in 2007, despite his 6.22 ERA.

But in spring training this past March Reyes never got on track. He gave up 12 runs in 11 innings, posting a 9.82 ERA in his four games. The Braves then sent him to Triple-A, where he once again dominated in Richmond.

Reyes pitched five games in April and had a 1.17 ERA in his five games. He struck out 25 in 23 innings and allowed only 15 hits. So when the Braves needed help in May after Tom Glavine and John Smoltz went down with injuries, Reyes was the perfect fit to be called up.

His first game back in the big leagues was a good one, as he allowed only one run in 5.1 innings against the Reds. Reyes's third game might have been one of his best, despite his poor line. The lefty allowed five runs in 6.2 innings in Philadelphia, but he did not walk a batter and struck out five. Reyes also got raves from Pat Gillick, the Phillies' GM, and others in the Philadelphia dugout.

Then two weeks later Reyes went into Milwaukee and pitched seven strong innings against the tough Brewers lineup. He allowed only one run on two hits in seven innings, walking three, and striking out nine. That game made everyone with the Braves believe Jo Jo Reyes had arrived.

The month of June was very positive, as Reyes four quality starts in his six appearances and had a 3.58 ERA. Reyes's ERA was at 4.15 at the end of June, and despite a 3-6 record most felt good about what he had done in his second season in the big leagues.

But then the wheels fell off. Reyes had an 11.48 ERA in his four starts in July. His longest outing in July was 4.1 innings. The Braves sent him back to the minor leagues, where again he did better. Reyes started three games and had a 3.94 ERA.

So the Braves brought him back up in August. He pitched well in New York on August 19th, limiting the Mets to two runs in six innings. But then Reyes struggled in his next two games, giving up nine earned runs in 9.2 innings.

In his first start in September, Reyes gave up only one run in six innings against the Nationals. But then his final three starts of the season were just not very good. The consistency the Braves needed to see was just not there, and when Reyes would pitch a decent game the bullpen would either fail him or the run support would not be there.

Reyes would finish the season with a 3-11 record and a 5.81 ERA in 113 innings. But the biggest concern was that Bobby Cox seemed to lose confidence in Reyes. Even with the Braves out of contention, Cox didn't have the patience to leave Reyes in there during his struggles to let him work things out. He instead would go to the bullpen, as he would do too early too much this season.

So where does this leave Reyes? Well, he's still young, and you just can't give up on a soon-to-be 24-year-old lefty. Reyes got too much advice during the season, from Roger McDowell and John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. All that information was just too much, and Reyes seemed to lose the best part of what got him to the big leagues in the first place.

When a pitcher is going bad, everyone seems to have an opinion of what he has to do to get out of it. Reyes heard too much of that this season, and tried to be what others wanted him to be instead of what he had done successfully to get to the big leagues. Now he's got to step back and get back to being Jo Jo Reyes, not some lefty pitcher that others want him to be.

But do the Braves still believe he can do that? Well, there's a chance they have run out of patience with him, which again is unfortunate considering his age. Giving up on a 24-year-old lefty is dangerous. Reyes has good stuff – a good fastball, a solid curveball, a good change and a decent slider. The consistency is what is needed, and sometimes it just takes a bit longer for some young pitchers to find it.

With the Braves talking to San Diego about Jake Peavy, it's very possible Reyes could be in that deal. Maybe the Braves just feel Reyes needs a change of scenery to realize his potential. But if Reyes does not get traded this winter, he'll come back and battle for the fifth starter's job in spring training.

***

The Charlie Morton watch began in spring training. The tall, lanky right-hander got on the radar in the Arizona Fall League last year. The Braves knew they had something; they just weren't exactly sure what it was.

Morton had always been a pitcher with outstanding stuff – an above average fastball and curveball. But his results were always poor, at least until late last season and into Arizona. Had Charlie Morton turned the corner, or was it just a fluke?

The Braves knew Morton probably needed some time in Triple-A, so he went there to start the season. Well, it didn't take long for Morton to show that last fall was not a fluke. He pitched in five games in April for the Richmond Braves and had a 2.36 ERA, with 23 strikeouts in 26.2 innings. Then in May Morton was even better, putting up a 1.60 ERA in six games.

By the time June rolled around the Braves' rotation was struggling in Atlanta, with injuries and inconsistency. That put Charlie Morton squarely on the radar, and after two games in Richmond in June the Braves brought him up to the big leagues.

Morton's first game was outstanding, with three earned runs allowed in six innings against the powerful Angels. And then he would go back and forth with good starts and not so-good starts, showing the inconsistency that plagues most young pitchers.

The month of August showed a lot about Morton. Four of his six starts were good ones, very good, including seven shutout innings in Arizona. But in between those four productive outings were poor starts. He wouldn't make it out of the third inning against the Cubs in Atlanta, and then couldn't make it out of the second inning against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

But again, Morton would show flashes of what the Braves wanted to see. His game in Arizona was very impressive, and his outing against the Brewers (two runs in seven innings) was about as good.

September had Morton mostly on the shelf, as he had discomfort in his right scapula. But doctors found no structural damage, and they only prescribed a workout program for Morton this winter to strengthen his shoulder and back muscles.

It would have been one thing if Morton had just wet the bed every time out. Then you could wonder if he was just any good or not. But with that stuff, that fastball and curve, you knew it was there, and his impressive games gave the Braves hope for the future.

Since Morton is now working out to strengthen his shoulder and back muscles, that will only prepare him for a larger test and build up his endurance. The 146 innings he pitched this season between Richmond and Atlanta are the most in his career for one season. So he's got to stay strong as the season goes along, and with his lanky frame building up some bulk should only help him.

Morton just turned 25 years old last week, so he's still a young pitcher. You have to have patience with these type pitchers. And it's likely the Braves will want to keep Morton to give him a shot at the fifth starter's role next spring.

***

Remember how Tom Glavine and John Smoltz struggled early in their careers? Well, it's normal for young pitchers to have some tough times. Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton will probably never be another Glavine and Smoltz – no one will. But the big thing is they don't have to. Both young men simply have to be themselves and find that consistency that every young pitcher seeks.

The Braves have to be careful here. Patience with young pitchers is the toughest thing to have as an organization. You don't want to give up on them too soon and see them thrive elsewhere, so the decisions on Reyes and Morton will be very important this winter.



Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.


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