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The Rays tried to save a few million and lost Charlie Morton in the process

The road back to the World Series just got a lot steeper.

2020 World Series Game 3: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves have signed 2020 ALCS Game 7 hero and 2019 Cy Young finalist Charlie Morton. 2020 is the worst.

The Rays had an option on Charlie Morton’s contract for 2021 — we think it cost $15 million. The Rays declined that option, at a time when reclamation projects coming off injury are signing for $11 million.

Now Morton has signed for $15 million to pitch for the Atlanta Braves, the team that outbid the Rays for one of their best hitters from 2019 last season, fan-favorite catcher Travis d’Arnaud. The Rays didn’t find a replacement for him on the roster and it was a problem in 2020.

How will the Rays react to losing a bigger piece of the puzzle in Charlie Morton? Maybe they will reallocate those funds to another big free agent signing.

Oh sorry, I’ll let you finish laughing, go ahead.

As I was saying, they could reallocate those funds on the major league roster. Not that they’ll sign Trevor Bauer, but they could go out there and sign... oh no, Jake Odorizzi? James Paxton? OK, maybe the answer will be on the trade market instead! You know, after they trade Blake Snell... Man, this year needs to end.

I’m stalling because there’s no good way to look at this.

World Series caliber pitchers are really hard to find. Cy Young caliber pitchers are really hard to find. Top free agents who desperately want to play in Tampa Bay are hard to find. Clubhouse leaders that players where shirts in honor of are hard to find. Historic post season performances are hard to find. Veteran pitchers who are willing to adapt to advanced analytics are hard to find. Charlie Freaking Morton is really hard to find.

You had him for $15 million. You let him walk, and he signed for $15 million. That hurts.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Three Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There are a few lessons here, but they all come down to money, and I’m just so very tired of walking through the reasons the Rays have been outbid. This pandemic crazed moment has some valid excuses around a lack of revenue from fans in the stands (both in the regular season and the playoffs). None of it really matters because nothing about this moment is different from how a different offseason would have played out.

Letting a 37 year old pitcher showing moderate signs of decline walk is very much a Rays move, even if that pitcher is as beloved as Morton. And when it comes to the free agent market it’s a song and dance we are used to as well.

The Rays took a gamble on an aging All-Star’s contract value and they lost, not much unlike how the team thought the market would bring Nelson Cruz to them in 2018 or Travis d’Arnaud in 2019. Now Tampa Bay is reportedly “second place” in the bidding for Morton and he signed for his original contract value so the problem is clearly just a couple million.

A couple million might be the difference in furloughing employees or not in a year like 2020, but in a free agent environment where Robbie Ray — who is not very good — signs for $8 million you have to consider whether you’re valuing the market correctly.

They didn’t, or — more likely — they couldn’t.

Previously - Rays Analysis: Charlie Morton’s Option

The Rays are so easily outbid by the smallest of margins for players important to the roster’s construction. And who deserves the blame?

If there were fans in the stands during the playoffs in 2020 would the difference add enough change to the coffers to keep Morton? Or at this point is Erik Neander just Sisyphus rolling a giant moneyball up the graph of the franchise’s climbing Forbes valuation, swearing the mountain top is just within reach?

Whatever the answer, the good news is that it’s not even December. There’s still time to set things right and hope the departure of another face of the franchise doesn’t sour the good will engendered in the players and fans by the World Series run.

The team will need to work even harder to back fill the gaping hole left by one of baseball’s best high leverage starting pitchers of the last five years. Who knows, at the end of the day you may look back and actually like this moment because it forces the Rays to do something this winter that at least feels fairly sizable.

The Rays are too good to let this team fall apart, and despite rising salaries elsewhere are currently $10 million cheaper than last year’s World Series roster.

Let’s see what they do next.