The Tampa Bay Rays have been kicking the tires on numerous players during the Winter Meetings this week, but the team has managed to snag one of the better arms on the market in Charlie Morton. The 2018 All-Star will sign a two-year deal with the club worth $30 million, with a third-year option. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times and Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports were the first to report the deal.
Morton’s option for 2021, as reported by Passan, will be dependent on how healthy Morton stays over his first two seasons. If unhealthy, the option could go as low as $1 million, but would be worth as much as $15 million if the opposite occurs and Morton stays healthy.
Despite being a rebuilding squad in 2018, with the likes of Wilson Ramos and Chris Archer being dealt, the Rays surprised many by winning 90 games in 2018. However, the rotation, which consists of American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and “openers,” still needed a boost in order to continue the momentum. The signing of Morton, 35, lets the Rays do just that.
A journeyman of sorts, Morton started his career with the Atlanta Braves before becoming a mainstay in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation. After a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2016 season, Morton would only start four games before having season-ending surgery on his hamstring. Morton signed with the Houston Astros during the off-season to a two-year, $14 million deal, which led to a renaissance of his career.
With Houston, Morton would pitch to a 29-10 record, boasting a 3.36 ERA/3.53 FIP in 55 starts and an impressive 10.4 K/9. One of the main reasons to his renaissance belongs to the uptick in his fastball velocity. Prior to his stint with the Phillies, Morton averaged 93.0 MPH on his fastball, but his velocity has seen a spike of nearly 4 MPH since then, as Morton averaged 96.8 MPH on his fastball in 2018. An increase in his curveball usage has also helped in his revitalization, as the usage of the pitch has gone up from ~25% in 2015 to ~30% in 2018.
For the Rays, their 2019 payroll sees a considerable increase with Morton’s contract. Prior to the signing, the Rays had just $10.2 million invested in Kevin Kiermaier at $8.2 million and Evan Longoria at $2 million, which is used to pay down his contract after a trade to the San Francisco Giants. According to Passan, the team is estimated to spend $15 million on their arbitration-eligible players, however, even after that, the payroll will sit near $40 million. That gives the team plenty of room to spend, as the team is currently linked to free agent DH Nelson Cruz, and could be seeking more pitching help, particularly in the bullpen.
As for the team’s plan to continue the “opener,” the team still has two spots in the rotation to use the strategy efficiently, as the likes of Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks, Wilmer Font, and Ryan Yarbrough are likely candidates in 2019. The team will also have Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon return mid-year from their respective Tommy John surgeries, giving the team adequate depth and talent moving forward.
Photo credit to Julio Aguilar of Getty Images. Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs.