Pirates reliever Morris enhances value with strong spring

Travis Sawchik
| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 10:06 p.m.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Who was that guy?

That's what Joe Maddon wanted to know last week. The Tampa Bay Rays manager reversed roles and directed a question toward a Pittsburgh-based reporter during a postgame news conference.

“Is he really that good?” Maddon said.

Maddon was asking about Pirates reliever Bryan Morris.

Scouts were buzzing about Morris, too, double checking their radar guns versus the Rays and again on Sunday against the Phillies. Morris' fastball topped out at 97 mph on both occasions, and with movement. His cutter touched 91 mph and perplexed batters.

Facing the Phillies on Sunday, Morris pitched two scoreless innings and showed an edge by drilling the Phillies' Cody Asche a half inning after Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon hit Starling Marte in the back and buzzed Andrew McCutchen up and in.

While the majority of the Pirates' 25-man roster is expected to contain few surprises, there is an intriguing bullpen battle this spring. Morris, Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel and Vin Mazzaro are out of options. The Pirates are unlikely to keep all four when the club breaks camp.

By improving his stock, Morris perhaps could be another impact bullpen arm or a trade chip later this spring.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Morris' stuff was “electric” against the Rays and was in attendance for Sunday's game against the Phillies.

“At the end of spring training, if everyone stays healthy, we are going to have a really challenging decision or two to make,” Huntington said Sunday. “Maybe it's a chance to move a guy that can go help someone else to add a piece that adds depth to our system or major league club.”

Not only has Morris' velocity ticked up, but he is developing a comfort level with a new pitch: the two-seam fastball.

“Believe it or not, he's throwing it in the mid-90s,” Huntington said, “and he has terrific sink to it.”

Morris struck out Phillies outfielder John Mayberry with a 96 mph two-seam fastball in the fifth inning Sunday.

“I started working on it toward the end of the season,” Morris said. “I worked on it over the winter.”

Morris already possessed above-average fastball velocity — 94 mph last season — but averaged a well-below-average strikeout rate (5.1 per nine innings).

Against the Rays on Thursday, Morris struck out three in two perfect innings. Morris said the strikeouts are tied to his improved cutter.

“I think it has more depth right now than what it had last year,” Morris said. “It's pressure points. It's subtle movement.”

The other change is Morris enters the 2014 season stronger. The Dodgers' 2006 first-round pick began using new shoulder-strengthening exercises in the offseason. He knew he had a fight coming this spring.

“In the offseason, I really got after it this year because it is a different battle,” Morris said. “Hopefully, whatever happens, I'll still be playing baseball somewhere.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Sunday the Pirates will carry 12 pitchers for “98 percent” of the season.

“We're having conversations right now on how we're best served,” Hurdle said. “We know we are going to need five starters (early in April). And then we are going to carry seven relievers.”

That means the Pirates have four relievers fighting for three spots. Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson are assured of roles.

Morris sounds like he's on the right side of the Pirates' roster-cut line.

“His evolution could be a back-of-the-(bullpen) guy,” Hurdle said.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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