Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
14. J.D. Drew
13. Brian Jordan
12. Edgar Renteria
11. Ray Lankford
In the decade prior to Matt Morris’s Major League debut with the St. Louis Cardinals, the franchise had hit a wall with pitcher development. The most productive Cardinals pitcher over the prior ten years who was drafted by and/or debuted with the Cardinals, and by a fairly wide margin, was Joe Magrane, a pitcher was no longer an effective Major Leaguer by the time he was twenty-six. Next up was Donovan Osborne, who had his moments but was never going to be the ace of a halfway decent big-league team.
Matt Morris was the first player ever selected by Walt Jocketty, the now-former Cardinals general manager whose footprint is still very much felt throughout the organization. And while Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan’s 1996 rotation was by definition their first one in St. Louis, it was a bit of a patchwork of existing veterans from inside and outside the organization, with only Todd Stottlemyre, with whom they had worked in Oakland, credibly considered one of “their” guys. And even though Matt Morris was drafted in 1995, prior to the arrival of LaRussa and Duncan in St. Louis, he was to become a focal point of what would truly be “their” rotation.
A first-team All-American at Seton Hall, Morris was nearly twenty-one when the Cardinals drafted him, and while he was not quite an MLB-ready product, it was widely accepted and known that he would not require an extensive re-tooling in the minor leagues before he was able to contribute at a big-league level. He pitched well in limited action at both low and high A levels in 1995, and in a 1996 season spent mostly with the AA Arkansas Travelers, plus a one-start Louisville Redbirds cameo, Morris continued to bolster his reputation. Entering 1997, at 22, Morris was a top-25 prospect per Baseball America and while the Cardinals would have been perfectly reasonable to let Morris ease into high-level pitching with a longer stint in AAA, he cracked the team’s Opening Day roster as the team’s #4 starter.
1997 wasn’t Matt Morris’s best season, but it was the season in which Morris exuded the most hope. He finished his rookie campaign with a 12-9 record (on a 73-89 team) and a 3.19 ERA. Morris finished tied for second in NL Rookie of the Year voting with NLCS and World Series MVP Liván Hernández, and while Morris didn’t get the benefit of additional postseason hype, the sense in St. Louis was that the Cardinals, a team bereft of a consistent one arguably since Bob Gibson, had found its next ace.
Matt Morris’s sophomore campaign lasted just one start before it was derailed. After a decent five inning, two run start against the San Francisco Giants on April 11, Morris was shelved for the next three months with an injury. Despite his injury, Morris was able to bounce back into a fully-fledged starter, treated more or less without kid gloves, upon his return in July, and in 113 2/3 total innings, Morris put up a 2.53 ERA. Despite the obvious innings handicap which comes from missing a solid half of a season, he was the team’s best starting pitcher by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, and while his FIP suggested some luck with regards to his low ERA, he was still the team’s best starting pitcher by that metric as well.
Matt Morris was seemingly back and destined for a breakout 1999 season, but in March came the devastating news that he needed Tommy John surgery and would miss the entire upcoming season, with his status for 2000 in doubt at the time. As it turned out, Morris was available to pitch in 2000, but out of an abundance of caution, the future ace-in-waiting was relegated to relief duty, debuting out of the bullpen on May 30. And he was fine–a decent set-up man for Dave Veres who was second on the Cardinals in saves. But “pretty good relief pitcher” wasn’t what the Cardinals had hoped Matt Morris would become, and it certainly isn’t what Morris expected for himself.
In 2001, Matt Morris got another chance in the team’s starting rotation. And Morris returned not only pitching like an ace, but like of the very best pitchers in the sport. With 216 1/3 innings pitched, the kid gloves were fully off for Matt Morris, and he repaid the Cardinals’ faith in him. He led the National League with 22 wins, a mostly meaningless statistic but one that, by definition, required the starter to go five-plus innings into a game. He had a 3.16 ERA which improved upon his other full season as an MLB starter, but his peripherals had improved dramatically–his decreasing walks with his additional strikeout-and-a-half per nine innings put his FIP at 3.05, suggesting that if anything, Morris had been a little bit unlucky. He was, with good reason, a distant third behind Arizona Diamondbacks teammates Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in Cy Young balloting, but his overall placement was worthy. And the Cardinals believed in him too–he started two NLDS games against the Diamondbacks (in both games, he allowed just one run, but he was handed a loss both times because Curt Schilling had carved up the Cardinals) and was the Cardinals’ Opening Day starter for 2002.
At this point, Morris was 27 and nearly eight years younger than either of the two men who had finished ahead of him in Cy Young voting the year before. To expect Matt Morris to be a consistent Cy Young contender once the old guard started to retire was not an unreasonable hypothesis. In 2002, Morris wasn’t quite his 2001 self, but he was once again a star level pitcher. He led the team with 17 wins, he had by far the team lead in innings pitched with 210 1/3 (only Jason Simontacchi, at 143 1/3, had even half of Morris’s mark), he maintained a svelte 3.42 ERA and 3.32 FIP near the peak of the steroid era, he was the team’s lone All-Star (he memorably hung the jersey of his late teammate Darryl Kile in the National League team’s dugout and wrote “DK” and “57” on his hands to display during pregame introductions), and he even outdueled Randy Johnson to win Game 1 of the NLDS in a rematch against the Diamondbacks. And again, if one year were labeled “the Matt Morris season”, it wasn’t this one.
As if committed to replicated the team itself, Morris was good but not great in 2003–his ERA and FIP rose to 3.76 and 3.90, respectively, and his strikeout rate fell by over a K per game. He was still an above-average pitcher, but he was unexceptional–both he and Woody Williams were fine when the team needed them to be stars, and the likes of Brett Tomko and Garrett Stephenson were below-average when the team needed them to be fine, and hence the 2003 Cardinals couldn’t make the postseason despite a terrific offensive core. And in 2004, even when the team itself won 105 games, Morris had his worst season yet–he struck out fewer than six per nine innings, walked 2.5 per nine, and his ERA and FIP ballooned to a worse-than-league-average 4.72 and 4.93. He wasn’t “lose his job in the rotation” bad, but Matt Morris was no longer the team’s undisputed ace. In theory, he could have been the team’s first starter in the postseason; instead, despite the emergent Chris Carpenter being out of commission, he was third.
Matt Morris bounced back somewhat in 2005. He wasn’t an All-Star, but his 4.11 ERA and 3.99 FIP, while a far cry from what he had been prior to 2004, were also solidly above-average. With the team’s acquisition of Mark Mulder, he was never expected to be more than the team’s third starter, and with the emergence of Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis, he was rarely even that. But in the NLDS, Morris got the honor of out-pitching forward teammate Woody Williams en route to a series-clinching Game 3 victory over the San Diego Padres. He made one more start, in an unspectacular but competent NLCS loss to the Houston Astros, and then he hit free agency. Morris signed with the San Francisco Giants and spent the next three seasons, split between the Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates, trying to recapture his old glories (one of the compensation picks for Morris turned out to be eventual competent MLB reliever Chris Pérez). But it was evident very quickly that the former ace was cooked. He made his final MLB appearance at age 33.
Matt Morris, like teammate Edgar Renteria, is a perpetual Cardinals Hall of Fame candidate now, and like Renteria, he probably won’t and arguably shouldn’t get in. But I have a theory, admittedly anecdotal, that Morris, by having his down season come in the most highly commemorated Cardinals season of the era and missing winning a World Series by one season, is destined to be unfairly underrated forever in St. Louis. The mid-aughts make Morris feel like rotation filler, when at his peak, he was one of the most special pitchers the Cardinals have had in recent memory.