The story of Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Charlie Morton is unique. Morton was an often injured and mediocre starter through the beginning of his career posting a 4.54 ERA/4.10 FIP/4.05 xFIP over 893.0 innings from 2008-2016.
Everything changed when the Houston Astros gave him a two year guaranteed deal heading into the 2017 season. From 2017-2020 Morton was healthier than he had ever been and posted a 3.31 ERA/3.27 FIP/3.42 xFIP and throwing 525.1 innings in roughly 3.5 seasons. Morton’s 13.0 fWAR ranks 13th during that time frame and 12.7 RA9 WAR ties him for 18th alongside teammate Blake Snell.
In 2016 at the age of 32 Morton saw a velocity spike from averaging 92 to 95 in 16.1 innings with the Philadelphia Phillies before he had surgery on a torn hamstring he suffered running to first base after a sacrifice bunt.
The Astros pounced on this increased velocity in a short run and gave him the two year guarantee deal when most in the industry weren’t sure he’d get a Major League deal at all. In 2017 Morton rewarded their faith by adding another tick to his fastball velocity putting his average at 96 mph.
Tampa Bay Rays
After two very successful years in Houston the Rays made what for them is considered a major splash in the free agency market signing Morton to a 2 year $30MM deal. That is the largest deal for the Rays in average value and total money guaranteed to a free agent.
In the two years Morton was nothing but fantastic. He posted a 3.33 ERA/2.92 FIP/3.40 xFIP over 232.2 innings producing 7.0 fWAR (8th in the Major Leagues) and 6.1 RA9 WAR (tied for 21st in the Major Leagues). He put up a 29.1% strikeout rate and 6.7% walk rate.
2019 was Morton’s most successful year to date. He was healthy for a full season for the first time in his career and put up by far a career best 194.2 innings with a 3.05 ERA/2.81 FIP/3.28 xFIP on way to finishing third in the American League Cy Young Award voting.
The Rays made an uncharacteristic bet on an aging pitcher and Morton gave them far more than they could have realistically dreamed of.
Legend of Charlie Freakin’ Morton
When the Rays needed a big performance on the mound in the biggest of moments Morton delivered his best starts. In six post season starts totaling 30.0 innings he allowed 7 earned runs (2.10 ERA) while allowing no more than one earned run in five of his six starts.
Two of his best performances came in elimination games for the Rays.
Morton was tasked with starting the 2019 American League Wild Card Game and allowed one unearned run over 5.0 innings before handing over a 5-1 lead to the bullpen that they wouldn’t relinquish.
This year he had the opportunity to start in the American League Championship Series Game 7 against his former team the Astros. This performance is in the discussion for best of his career. Morton was cruising through a scoreless 5.2 innings allowing two hits and a walk while striking out six. He was pulled at 66 pitches and turned over the 3-0 lead to Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks to close things out.
When the Rays backs were against the wall Morton is the guy you wanted on the mound and he delivered.
Morton turns 37 in a couple weeks and is at the top of his game, so the normal expectation would be for him to come back and push this as far as it goes. However Morton isn’t like most people. He’s very reserved and looks to value time with his family. One of the reasons he chose to sign with the Rays is his family lives in Bradenton about half an hour outside St. Petersburg.
Before his last season with the Astros Morton hinted he might retire instead of signing another contract. After signing with the Rays he said that it would likely be the last contract he signed. People can change their minds and I absolutely wouldn’t blame Morton for looking at getting another big paycheck even in a short term deal. He’s earned that right.
Details are murky on the original deal he signed with the Rays as there was a vesting option for 2021 with a value was based on how much time he was on the Injured List during his first two seasons. In 2019 he didn’t miss a single day but in 2020 he missed almost a month with a sore shoulder.
However, reports indicate he renegotiated the option after the shorter season was announced. Details are unknown at this point whether it’s even a team option, player option, vesting option, or mutual option.
Whatever the option is, it likely caps out at the $15MM level that he has earned over his first two years with the Rays. If it’s the Rays choice they absolutely should take the option for one last run with Morton.
I do hope that Morton is on the Rays roster come Opening Day 2021, but that is my own selfish feelings.
If Morton decides this really is the end for him despite having more in the tank than I am happy for him, but it won’t be because the Rays didn’t want him. He’s been an important player for the Rays the last two years and if he wants to spend more time with his family that’s what he should do.
UPDATE: The Rays have declined Morton’s option, but will talk about re-signing him.