RICHMOND—Three pitching sessions proceeded simultaneously in last year's Arizona Fall League.
One featured the Braves' Charlie Morton throwing to the Mariners' Jeff Clement. Morton, under the supervision of Braves Double-A pitching coach Derek Botelho, painted the black with 94-95 mph fastballs and snapped off sharp sliders and curveballs.
Clement, catching Morton for the first time, stopped and took off his mask.
"Who is this kid?" he asked Botelho. "And what does he have to work on?"
The man Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen calls "a potential No. 1 or 2 starter on a good major league team" is one of Atlanta's developmental secrets. It just hasn't been by choice.
Morton, 24, was ranked as Atlanta's No. 18 prospect in 2005. That's the last list on which you'll find him.
The lanky, 6-foot-5 righthander dropped off the radar with a series of losing seasons, high ERAs and high walk totals. He has reappeared, Braves farm director Kurt Kemp says, for a simple reason: "His performance has caught up to his ability."
"He's always had very good stuff," Kemp said. "There's no blueprint for when a guy's going to be ready. Everybody on our staff, from the beginning, had the belief that he had the ability to be a big league pitcher."
Morton, drafted in the third round of the 2002 draft out of Barlow High in Redding, Conn., has not put together a winning pro season. He was 25-43, 4.90 through 2007.
"My best year, I won seven games and lost nine and I had an ERA just under five," he said. "That's not much to show for all the time you spend on the field. It got frustrating, really frustrating.
"Guys you are friends with are pitching better than you and they get released and they keep you around. I didn't understand that at all."
Coming Into Focus
Braves coaches told Morton that he had some of the best stuff in the system. They persisted with that message throughout his limited success.
"That's something that's always been frustrating," he said. "People are on your side, and you're not able to do anything with the tools you're blessed with."
Morton went 6-7, 5.40 at high Class A Myrtle Beach in 2006. After some internal debate, the Braves decided to push him to Double-A Mississippi last year, hoping better competition and an atmosphere of older players would rub off.
He went 4-6, 4.29—mostly out of the bullpen—but started to become the pitcher the Braves envisioned when he moved into the rotation late in the season. Morton continued to evolve in the AFL, going 4-1, 2.57 and securing a spot on Atlanta's 40-man roster. He even turned in five hitless innings while Braves manager Bobby Cox, pitching coach Roger McDowell and general manager Frank Wren watched.
Morton had sizzled this season against International League competition (3-1, 2.14), ranking third in ERA and 10th in strikeouts (48). He had allowed just 42 hits—and 21 walks—in 59 innings.
"Developmentally, numbers are part of a picture and they tell a story. But they don't tell all of the story," Kemp said.
"In my opinion, they didn't (with Charlie). The quality of his pitches, the ability, all of those things didn't necessarily equate to numbers. There are a lot of good pitchers in the majors who didn't have knockout numbers in the minors."
So what adjustments has Morton made to bring about this reversal of fortune?
"No big adjustments," Morton said, "just a lot of work with several pitching coaches that finally aligned with maturity and confidence.
"I guess I'm a lot less surprised than other people for the sole reason that the Braves had pounded into my head that it would all come together, that I was better than I was pitching. I had the stuff. It was the faith I had in the organization and the faith the organization had in me."
Hansen said Morton has five pitches that can take care of business. He's got a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a "Maddux-esque" changeup that he can start inside against lefthanders and have tail back over the plate—"very, very rare," Hansen said—a 12-to-6 curveball and a sharp slider. His out-pitch changes from game to game.
"The beauty with him is he throws 89-90 (mph) with his two-seamer, 91-93 with his four-seamer, and at any time he can run it up to 95," Hansen said. "I love that he's got an extra gear. Indianapolis got a guy to second base the other day—(Morton) stepped it up to 95, and it was over."
Botelho said Morton's stuff is so good that pitchers from other organizations sometimes stood around the bullpen to watch his side sessions during the fall league.
"Guys would look at me and shake their heads: 'Boy, he's got unbelievable stuff. He doesn't know how good he really is.' I heard that many times."
Morton comes across as somewhat shy. But the Braves have seen an inner intensity that isn't always evident on the surface.
"He kind of plays it very coy," Hansen said. "He's really very smart. I think he knows he's got ability and kind of plays it off."
The Braves had resisted promoting Morton to Atlanta during the first two months of the season, despite an epidemic of pitching injuries. They'd like to see him continue to work on his fastball location and build on his success in Richmond.
"Like anything else, when you experience how bad it can be and start to turn it around, it's a lot easier to push forward," Morton said.
"I can't tell you I'd change it if I could. It's all part of the process."
Pearrell covers the Braves for the Richmond Times-Dispatch