Recently, the Cleveland Indians have struck gold developing young pitching prospects. Look no further than Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco and Shane Bieber – their current five-man rotation when everyone is healthy – to see that they have a tendency to produce stars out of their minor league system. While only one of them – Bieber – was drafted by Cleveland, the rest all found success when they started pitching for the Indians. Only Bauer was a highly-touted prospect, proof that Cleveland is a breeding ground for unheralded pitchers to thrive.
That’s what has me so intrigued by 2017 eighth round pick Eli Morgan out of Gonzaga. Gonzaga is known for their basketball program – and for good reason – but they have turned out a handful of very solid pitching prospects in recent years, including Seattle’s Marco Gonzales and Morgan’s potential future teammate, left-hander Tyler Olson.
So a pitching prospect coming from a school with a history of success and going into a system with a history of success developing pitchers is a promising start, and it only gets better when you look at Morgan’s performance so far in the minor leagues.
The Book on Eli
After getting drafted in June 2017, Morgan appeared in 13 games down the stretch for Cleveland’s Low-A affiliate. He threw 35 innings, posting a 1.03 ERA and a ridiculous 58:9 K/BB ratio. While that’s extremely impressive, a developed college arm feasting on Low-A hitters isn’t immediate cause for celebration.
It was enough for Cleveland to move Morgan up to Single-A however, and insert him directly into the starting rotation. Morgan started eight games at that level, absolutely dismantling hitters with a 1.83 ERA, and an eerily similar 56:8 K/BB ratio in 44.2 innings.
From there he was promoted to High-A, making 19 starts to finish off the year. His numbers took a small slide, with a 3.91 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP, although he still posted a 9.09 K/9 and a very nice 2.36 BB/9.
He was named the Indians minor league pitcher of the year for his work in 2018, but he didn’t appear on any top-1oo lists thanks to concerns about his size (5-feet-10-inches, 190 pounds) and velocity, which barely hovers over 90 mph and often sits in the mid-80s.
2019 has been more of the same, as Morgan quickly pitched his way out of High-A by posting a 1.87 ERA and a 10.69 K/9 in six starts. He has continued to shove at Double-A, with a 3.17 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and a 61:22 K/BB ratio in 59.2 innings pitched.
The fact that his strikeout numbers are still solid against Double-A hitters is a great sign. Many college arms post gaudy K/BB numbers in the lower levels, but the real test often comes in Double-A. While 11 starts is not a huge sample size, it’s enough to conclude that Morgan can still pound the strike zone, earn strikeouts and not get hit around too much at the higher levels.
Morgan doesn’t rely on his average fastball to get strikeouts, but rather his 60-grade changeup that has been called one of the best in the minor leagues. His breaking pitches both flash plus as well, although he’ll need one of them to be more consistent if he wants to stick as a starter.
How that all translates into the major leagues, obviously, remains to be seen. Morgan’s size and velocity are still valid concerns, and have caused many to label him a future bullpen piece or long reliever.
Kiley McDaniels of Fangraphs listed Morgan in an article titled “The Next Prospects who could Pull a Glasnow” referring to Tyler Glasnow and his “funk/deception which, during the third time through the order, becomes less effective against MLB hitters.”
Even in the minors, he doesn’t get through the sixth inning all that often, which could lead to a future as a guy who follows a false starter, a la Felix Pena or Yonny Chirinos.
However, Cleveland has always found a way to get the most out of these kinds of arms, and Morgan’s high-strikeout, low-walk totals in the minors are reminiscent of Bieber.
Whether Morgan can reach that kind of potential remains to be seen, but the fact that he made the transition to Double-A without a hitch is encouraging. The 23-year-old still has some work to do until he’s ready for a big league rotation, but I’d be more than happy to target him in deeper dynasty formats.
TINSTAAPP is certainly in play here, and I could definitely see a reality where Morgan gets banished to a long/middle relief role, which would kill his fantasy value, but I trust Cleveland’s development staff – and Gonzaga’s recent history – enough to believe that Morgan could develop into a mid-rotation starter.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on twitter)