Free agent profile: Charlie Morton

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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.

Current Stuff

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.

Injury History

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.

Contract Estimates

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.

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5 Comments

  1. Mungo

    I’d be fine with Morton as one of the additions, but not the primary. By that, if we slip him into the number two position in the rotation, it leaves the team exposed if he gets injured. We need a dependable starter behind Cole. The free agent market for pitchers isn’t that deep, and there are many teams looking, which means anyone who vaguely looks like quality will get paid. What players have signed, either by QO (Gausman, Stroman) or by a new contract (Drew Smyly and Robbie Ray) does not indicate to me at all that there are bargain rates out there. Tanaka and Paxton are actually two of the better pitchers out there. They will get paid more than most predicted.

    The free agent market for DJLM just likely went up. Have to believe the Mets might now seriously look at him with Cano being suspended for a season. What better way for Cohen to make a statement than take the Yankees best player away? I wasn’t sure he’d do that previously because there wasn’t an opening. There is now and he has millions more to spend.

    As for Cano, how dumb. He has guaranteed money. Collect it. Take PEDs and get caught as he just did? You lose $25M.

  2. Leon

    I’m passing on this, there is literally a Charlie Morton on the market almost every year (it was Rich Hill like 3 years in a row) and it never pans out well for the team who signs them. I’d rather go for someone not as good with a history of better health than dropping anything on a guy who’s essentially a 50/50 shot on whether he even gives you 5 innings or more than 15 starts.

    They could probably re-sign Paxton for less and get the same production.

  3. How well did Morton pitch in the playoffs this year? Shouldn’t that info be included in a profile such as this?

  4. mikenyc2007

    Feels like Tanaka will be back, so bringing in Morton is a good idea as he could slide behind Cole and be a reliable top of the rotation guy.
    IMO this is something the Yanks should pounce on – blow Tampa out with a 2/28 offer and both damage them and improve the Yanks staff…. if Tampa belly’s up, thats money they cannot spend elsewhere.
    Even if its an overpay, its a place to spend $$ which will have a huge impact for the Yanks.
    However, then watch Tampa sign Paxton for 1/$6mm and watch him win the Cy Young lol.

    • MikeD

      Totally with your sentiment on the Rays signing Paxton. : -) Overall, though, he’ll get a lot more than $6M from some team. He’s probably at least a 1/10 with incentives. I’d be fine if the Yankees bought him back on one level, but the Yankees have so many pitching rotation slots to fill that they need more certainty. Getting that certainty is going to be the challenge.

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