Minor Disruption: Eli Morgan earns a spot on Indians’ 60-man training camp roster
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about how the coronavirus shutdown has impacted minor league baseball players.
Eli Morgan felt that familiar pit in his stomach as he took the mound for his first live batting practice session in 2½ months, the adrenaline kicking in for the Cleveland Indians prospect even on an empty high school field in late May.
“My first live BP, there was definitely that game-like feeling,” said Morgan, a former Palos Verdes Peninsula High and Gonzaga standout who spent most of last summer at double-A Akron, Ohio. “I was almost nervous throwing to the first batter, which felt so incredible.
“But it’s definitely not the same as if we were in a stadium. If it was game day, I’d be nervous for seven hours leading up to it, not just 30 seconds before a live at-bat.”
Live batting practice sessions at his old high school served as a prequel for Morgan, who was invited by the Indians to be part of the 60-man training camp roster beginning Friday.
While major league owners and players scramble to salvage a pandemic-shortened season, minor league seasons were canceled, depriving hundreds of prospects a year of development and putting their big league dreams on hold.
Morgan, a 24-year-old righthander, at least will be able to work out with the Indians and could make his big league debut at some point this season.
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This is a pivotal year for Morgan, a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder who has the best changeup and control among Indians minor league pitchers, according to Baseball America’s 2020 Prospect Handbook.
An eighth-round pick in 2017, Morgan ascended quickly. He went 9-7 with a 3.27 ERA in 27 starts for Class-A Lake County (Ohio) and Lynchburg (Va.) in 2018 and 9-6 with a 3.39 ERA in 25 starts and one relief appearance in 2019 for Lynchburg and Akron, with one spot start at triple-A Columbus.
Though his fastball, which sits in the 89-mph range and touches 94 mph, is not overpowering, Morgan has power-pitcher-like numbers, his 302 strikeouts the sixth-most in the minor leagues since the start of 2018.
Had the sport not shut down March 12 because of the coronavirus, Morgan likely would have opened 2020 at triple-A, where another strong performance against more seasoned hitters would have positioned him for a big league call-up.
“Any time you face more experienced hitters, it provides another wrinkle,” Indians assistant general manager Carter Hawkins said. “Eli has a great changeup, but he’s not going to be able to throw the changeup three times through the order to guys who have seen elite changeups at the major league level.
“So just refining his repertoire and how he attacks hitters, getting a better idea of the things he’ll need to do to be successful at the top level.”
A key part of Morgan’s development that will be delayed is his handling of the uncertainty of triple-A, where pitching routines — and lives — can be upended with one twinge of an elbow, one tweak of a groin, at the big league level.
Pitchers with minor league options often shuttle between the big leagues and minor leagues multiple times over several seasons.
“Triple-A is where, for the first time in a meaningful way, you lose control over things that are happening around you,” Hawkins said. “Typically, in A ball, double-A ball, you’re on a five-day routine. You might have a rainout here or there, but you’re not really impacted by something outside of you for the most part.
“At triple-A, you start being impacted by the major league club, especially if you’re in a starter’s role. They might have an injury and need several options for the next start, so you skip a start. There are so many things you have to be able to handle. You have to be really agile, and that’s a great learning experience.”
A lost season for Morgan, 24, and his minor league peers does not mean all is lost. The Indians, in weekly Zoom calls, have urged prospects to maximize this downtime.
“I’ve never had a player tell me, ‘I don’t think I can get better this offseason,’ so if you change your perspective a little bit and think this is just an extension of my off-season, then what do you want to get better at?” Hawkins said.
Morgan appeared in his first big league exhibition game March 2, allowing an unearned run and striking out three in 1 1/3 innings against Texas. Since returning from Arizona in mid-March, he’s been working out with a personal trainer six days a week and throwing seven days a week.
The Dodgers and Angels should start games earlier this season because fans don’t need to rush to the ballpark after work. They just need to turn on the TV.
“There’s not a lot you can do other than work out, throw, stay inside, rinse, repeat, do the same thing the next day,” said Morgan, the son of former Times deputy sports editor Dave Morgan. “It just feels like it’s been forever since I’ve been in a game.”
The Indians have guaranteed minor leaguers $400 a week through June. Morgan, who signed for $135,000, was living at home in Redondo Beach until reporting to Cleveland this week, so he has not incurred any financial hardship during the shutdown.
“I’m lucky in that I have no expenses right now,” Morgan said. “I know some guys who are married and in their own house. I have zero clue how those guys are doing it.”
Morgan has been working on his slider. In a world without the coronavirus, he’d be measuring the effectiveness of his third pitch against triple-A hitters right now. Turns out, he’ll be able to do so soon enough.
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