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Rays Free Agent Target: RHP Charlie Morton

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MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

A somewhat surprising name has surfaced as a potential Tampa Bay Rays free agent target in RHP Charlie Morton.

The Rays are usually not connected with notable free agents. This is even more true at the beginning of the winter, and for the starting pitching market in particular.

Charlie Morton was a potential qualifying offer candidate after posting two very good season with the Houston Astros after signing him to a two-year, $14MM deal that was quite surprising. Well, the $7MM annual salary wasn’t all that surprising, it was the guaranteeing of two years.

Morton was coming off a season that was ended early in 2016 with the Philadelphia Phillies. After just 17.1 innings a torn hamstring ended his season in April. The Astros were rewarded for their faith in Morton as he compiled 313.2 innings of 3.36 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 3.49 xFIP baseball. He struck out 27.7% of batters and walked 8.7% of batters, putting up 6.3 fWAR and 5.8 rWAR.

It was the rare free agent contract that worked out extremely well.

Morton exceeded all expectations in his age 33-34 seasons. Coming into the 2017 season he had posted 897.0 innings with a 4.54 ERA, 4.10 FIP, and 4.05 xFIP. His strikeout rate sat at 16.0% and walked 8.6% of batters. Essentially being a replacement level player by rWAR (-0.5 combined rWAR) and was mostly a one win pitcher by rWAR (+7.8 combined fWAR).

His unusual career arc is exemplified by looking at his velocity chart. In his 2008 rookie season his fourseam fastball averaged 92.47 mph and his sinker averaged 90.47 mph as a 24 year old pitcher. When he finally broke into the majors full time in 2011, he was throwing a bit harder, but still not as hard as he does today.

A preview of his increased velocity appeared in his short 2016 season showing a near three mph increase on both of his primary fastballs to 95.22 mph on his fourseam fastball and 94.83 mph on his sinker.

Here’s the recent velo-history of his full, six-pitch mix:

In 2018 he posted his highest average velocities of his career at 96.65 mph for his fourseam fastball and 95.56 mph for his sinker.

Expected Contract

Morton will benefit from the Astros lack of willingness to make a qualifying offer ($17.9MM).

MLBTradeRumors predicts that Morton will get a two year, $32MM contract and at FanGraphs.com Kiley McDaniels and the median crowd source predicted the same two year, $32MM contract for Morton.

It’s a rare situation where a 35-year old pitcher is putting up the highest velocities in their career and is likely looking at a short term deal.

Earlier this season it was reported that Morton would consider retiring at the end of his last contract, but has since said he wants to continue playing. Location might be the biggest factor that the Rays can’t compete with as he’s previously stated if he continued pitching he would prefer to be closer to his wife’s family in Delaware.

A contract this size would be highly unusual for the Rays to give to a free agent. With the Rays current payroll sitting in the low $30MMs it is a deal the Rays could make, particular with Morton wanting to only pitch one or two more seasons.