There’s no question that the Yankees need to bolster the starting rotation. A team that resorts to smoke and mirrors in Game 2 of a playoff series is a team in need of pitching help. The Yankees may have Gerrit Cole, but things thin out really quickly after him, even with the promising Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt in the wings. Bringing back Masahiro Tanaka will help, but frankly, the Yankees need to do more than just that. That’s where someone like free agent Charlie Morton comes in.
Background & Performance
Morton was born in New Jersey but grew up in Connecticut and apparently was a big Yankees fan. The Braves drafted him out of high school in the third round of the 2002 draft, but it took him a while to make the big leagues. He debuted for Atlanta in 2008, but was dealt to Pittsburgh the following summer for Nate McLouth.
The righty put together some solid yet unspectacular seasons in Pittsburgh before a brief stay in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until 2017 with Houston that he truly broke out at 33 years of age. Since, Morton owns a 3.34 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 546 1/3 innings. He doesn’t necessarily go deep into games (5.6 innigns per start in that timeframe), but he’s undoubtedly effective when on the mound. During that same timespan, he’s fanned 28.4 percent of batters, walked 8.0 percent of opponents, and allowed just 0.84 homers per nine innings.
Morton’s also earned a bunch of accolades in recent years. He’s been clutch in the postseason, namely the 2017 World Series. He’s also made a couple of All-Star teams and finished third in the 2019 Cy Young voting. Not bad for a late bloomer.
We’ve seen Morton succeed with Tampa Bay for the last two years, and even though the team declined his $15 million option, it sure sounds like he wouldn’t mind returning. He lives relatively close to Tropicana Field, so leaving home might not interest him all that much. That said, if he does indeed want to continue his career, he may need to look elsewhere.
With that in mind, there may be a draw to the Yankees. Again, he grew up a Yankees fan and spent plenty of time at Yankee Stadium in his childhood. He has roots in the tri-state area. Tampa Bay may be his first option given his current familial status, but playing for the Yankees could be a bucket list item for him.
At his age (37 as of last week), it wasn’t surprising to see Morton’s velocity tick down to open the season. He struggled to crack 92 MPH with his heater in the early going, but managed to recover some lost velocity later on. Really, the recovery likely stemmed from feeling healthier after some time on the injured list with shoulder inflammation.
By September, Morton’s average fastball was 94.1 on the radar gun. In the postseason, he averaged 95 MPH. That’s right in line with here he was in 2019. A good sign, indeed.
Morton’s four-seamer is his most used pitch (35.5 percent in 2020), but he also throws a sinker (20.9 percent) and a cutter (8.8 percent) to mix things up. All are good offerings, but his putaway pitch is his nasty curveball. It’s got elite spin and movement and garners plenty of whiffs.
Morton has a lengthy injury history. He had a couple of hip surgeries while with the Pirates and a Tommy John surgery to boot. That was a long way back, however. Still, he has spent time on the injured list every season since 2012 except for 2019. Yup, it took him until 35 years of age to have a clean year. Go figure.
Most recently, Morton has dealt with shoulder trouble as I touched on in the last section. That’s undoubtedly a red flag. Not only did he spent time on the injured list with shoulder issues this year, but he also dealt with shoulder discomfort back in 2018 which also required an injured list stint. Additionally, a lat strain shelved him for part of 2017. Look, any team that signs Morton is taking a chance on his health.
There’s no crowdsourced estimate over at FanGraphs for Morton, unfortunately. Those were released before Tampa Bay’s decision to decline his 2021 option. However, MLB Trade Rumors pegged the righty for a one-year, $8 million contract.
I must say that projection seems low to me. Especially now that Robbie Ray ($8 million) and Drew Smyly ($11 million) have signed on-year contracts. They may be younger than Morton, but they likely aren’t better than him next season. Morton may not beat the option amount that Tampa Bay declined, but he’s almost certainly getting as much, if not more, than Smyly.
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
Yes. The Yankees need pitching and Morton might be the best starter on the market not named Trevor Bauer. There’s a bit of risk here, particularly on the age and health fronts, but there’s also a ton of upside. That risk might be palpable on a one-year contract, though. Perhaps most importantly, it’s not necessarily about getting a workhorse here (yes, the Yankees should pursue that too). It’s about backing up Gerrit Cole in the rotation with another excellent starter. Morton can be that.