Charlie Morton Is the Braves’ Latest One-Year Rental

It’s often said that there are no bad one-year deals, and the Braves have made a particular habit of using them to augment their young rotations — a habit that predates Alex Anthopoulos’ arrival as their general manager. After a season in which they fell one win short of their first trip to the World Series since 1999 despite a rotation thinned out by major injuries, the Braves have been been aggressive in pursuing that short-term approach. After signing Drew Smyly to a one-year contract last week, they’ve inked Charlie Morton to a one-year, $15 million deal, the same amount of money he would have been paid in 2021 had the Rays not declined his option in late October. Though a quirk of timing caused him to miss inclusion in our Top 50 Free Agents list, he’s the first major free agent to come off the board.

Morton, who turned 37 on November 12, is coming off a regular season in which he was limited to nine starts and 38 innings due to a bout of shoulder inflammation that sidelined him for three weeks in August. The Rays kept him on a short leash, but as the postseason reminded the baseball world, that’s how they roll. Morton pitched more than five innings just once (5.2 on August 4 against the Red Sox), and he topped 90 pitches just three times, maxing out at 94. He was used similarly in the postseason, and looked quite good, particularly in a pair of scoreless starts against the Astros in the ALCS; he threw five innings and 96 pitches in Game 2, then an ultra-efficient 5.2 innings while allowing just two hits on 66 pitches in Game 7. His removal while cruising along in that latter game foreshadowed manager Kevin Cash’s ill-fated decision to pull Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series, though in Morton’s case things turned out in the Rays’ favor. His lone postseason dud came in Game 3, when the Dodgers roughed him up for five runs in 4.1 innings.

Including the postseason, Morton posted a 4.03 ERA, 3.15 FIP, and 25.3% strikeout rate in 58 innings, a step down from his 3.05 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and 30.4% strikeout rate in 2019. Via Statcast, including both postseasons as well in order to beef up the sample size for 2020, his average exit velocity rose from 86.8 mph to 88.8, his barrel rate from 4.9% to 7.1%, and his xwOBA from .282 to .291. That kind of performance dip might have come out in the wash with a longer season, and so too with regards to his drop in velocity, but the latter is of more concern given his age and shoulder injury. Sticking with Statcast’s numbers and again including postseasons, his average four-seam fastball velocity has fallen from 96.1 mph in 2018 to 94.8 in ’19 and then 93.7 this year. While the velo drop might have figured into the Rays’ thinking in declining Morton’s option, their general tight-fistedness and the fact that Morton himself said that he would consider retiring if they didn’t pick up the option probably loomed larger.

The timing of the Rays’ decision on Morton prevented us from including him on our Top 50 list. As I noted in my roundup of players with declined options, I asked list-maker Craig Edwards where he’d place Morton among the top 50; he suggested 12th, one spot below Marcus Stroman, who since then has accepted the Mets’ one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer. Some further thoughts of mine from that piece:

I’d put Morton ahead of Stroman based upon their recent workloads and performances; Morton made at least 30 starts in both 2018 and ’19, and totaled 13.0 WAR with a 3.27 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 546.1 innings since the start of 2017, while Stroman produced just 8.7 WAR with a 3.65 ERA and 3.83 FIP in 487.2 innings in that span, obviously in part because he missed this season, though his injury would have cost him a substantial chunk anyway… That said, there’s a 7 1/2-year age difference between the two, and Morton’s fastball velocity has dropped 2.4 mph over the past two seasons… though he’s still bringing more heat than Stroman (92.5 mph in 2019).

While our Steamer projections have the two pitchers even in WAR despite Stroman being forecast to throw 39 more innings, ZiPS gives the edge to Morton for 2021, though a longer-term projection would likely tilt in Stroman’s favor. This is a Braves-specific projection (of course Stroman never had a chance to sign with Atlanta), though Stroman’s Mets projection only differs by a few hundredths of a run:

2021 ZiPS Projections – Charlie Morton vs. Marcus Stroman
Charlie Morton 11 6 3.66 26 26 137.2 123 16 45 151 124 3.72 3.0
Marcus Stroman 11 7 4.19 28 28 156.2 162 18 51 129 108 4.07 2.6
Both pitchers are projected with the 2021 Braves.

Morton did fall short of my prediction for either a one-year-plus-option or two-year deal, perhaps because he really is looking to the finish line — and if that’s the case, he’s come full circle. The Braves chose Morton in the third round of the 2002 draft out of a Connecticut high school, and stuck with him as he plodded through two years in Rookie leagues and three in A-ball. Not until 2007 did he reach Double-A, and he made just 16 starts with a 6.15 ERA for the big club, all in ’08, before being traded to the Pirates in the Nate McLouth deal in ’09.

In signing with Atlanta, Morton continues a roster strategy that the Braves — who have been awash in young starting pitchers in recent years — have used liberally since John Coppolella’s tenure as GM. Including Smyly and Morton, since the winter of 2016-17, they’ve signed seven starting pitchers to one-year deals, only one of which was a minor-league contract. Admittedly, the results have been a mixed bag thus far:

One and Done: Braves Free Agent Starters Since 2017
Pitcher Year Salary IP ERA FIP WAR
R.A. Dickey 2017 $8M 190.0 4.26 4.72 1.5
Bartolo Colon 2017 $12.5M 63.0 8.14 5.09 0.1
Aníbal Sánchez 2018 $1M* 133.2 2.90 3.59 2.5
Dallas Keuchel 2019 $13M** 112.2 3.75 4.72 0.8
Cole Hamels 2020 $6.67M** 3.1 8.10 2.89 0.1
Charlie Morton 2021 $15M
Drew Smyly 2021 $11M
Total 2017-20 $41.17M 502.2 4.29 4.45 5.0
* = minor league contract
** = prorated amount

Dickey and Colon were signed by Coppolella during the Braves’ rebuilding phase; they were entering their age-42 and -44 seasons, respectively, and only the former even came close to panning out. Sánchez was a scrapheap pickup who had been increasingly ineffective and/or unavailable over the previous three years, and who had just been released by the Twins during spring training. Keuchel, whose free agency was hampered both by his receiving a qualifying offer from the Astros and by some combination of unrealistic expectations and a slow winter for free agency, didn’t sign until after the draft. Hamels, whose full-season salary would have been $18 million, made just one appearance for the Braves, on September 16, in a season lost to triceps and shoulder injuries.

In the aggregate, the Braves have paid about $8 million per win for these guys, and that number would be higher, and the performance further below average, if I hadn’t included the Sánchez deal. Certainly, they could have chosen better and gotten more bang for the buck; in the realm of one-year deals Lance Lynn delivered 2.8 WAR to the Twins and Yankees for $12 million in 2018, Brett Anderson gave the A’s 2.0 WAR for somewhere between $1.5 and $2.5 million in ’19, and Kevin Gausman — who pitched for the Braves for parts of both of those seasons — turned in a 1.5 WAR season for $3.33 million (after proration) with the Giants this year. But the Braves also could have committed $60 million or more to somebody like Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, or Nathan Eovaldi during this time period and received a thoroughly underwhelming return at greater cost.

I’m not suggesting this approach would work for every team, or that the Braves have exactly reinvented the wheel, but they’ve now won three straight NL East titles while rolling the dice on a grizzled starter to accompany a stable of young arms that could prove to be particularly formidable. It’s not unreasonable for them to keep going this route given their depth, and Morton, who’s just a year removed from being one of the AL’s elite starters, is this winter’s ideal candidate. He’d help the rotation of any contender, and given that eight to 10 teams were said to be interested in his services, it’s quite possible that he could have been working against the Braves rather than for them.

The Rays, who hoped to take advantage of Morton’s desire to remain near his Bradenton home by retaining him at a lesser salary, have work to do to replace Morton in a rotation that still contains Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Ryan Yarbrough. With Yonny Chirinos out for most if not all of the year due to Tommy John surgery and Brendan McKay recovering from labrum surgery, Josh Fleming and Brent Honeywell Jr. are the leading candidates to round out that group barring trades or signings. The Rays are reportedly open to trading Snell, who’s under club control through 2023 via a five-year, $50 million extension he signed in March 2019, and could conceivably use the return to fill out the rotation.

With Atlanta, Morton joins a rotation that will feature Max Fried, Mike Soroka (assuming his recovery from a torn right Achilles goes well), Ian Anderson, and Smyly, with Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Huascar Ynoa providing depth. Eyeballing their Depth Chart with the assumption that it’s Wright’s innings he’s cutting into the most deeply, Morton projects to provide about a 1.5-win upgrade for the regular season, and to vault the Braves’ rotation from 16th to 11th in our projections.

With Morton on board, the Braves can now turn their attention to Marcell Ozuna, who himself excelled in Atlanta on a one-year deal and whom the team is reportedly interested in retaining for longer. If he departs, the Braves will have a sizable hole in their lineup to fill, but if they need to trade rather than to shop on the open market, they’re that much deeper in pitching thanks to the addition of Morton.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

The free agency ranking system doesn’t really work for older players. Yes, there is slightly increased risk for the next year when looking at older players, but not exceedingly so. How does this work? Is the ranking based solely on projected 2021 performance or do further years also factor in?

I also think it should not be a surprise that the Braves one year at a time strategy has produced basically an average outcome. They basically have a mutual fund for pitchers when looked at in the aggregate. If you go all in on one stock, you might hit it big, but you can also go bust. It’s less likely to bust when you are just signing guys for somewhat modest one year deals.

3 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

The Braves have spent a ton of draft capital on pitchers – they just haven’t developed. Giving a long-term deal to a 37 year old pitcher is foolish by the standards of most teams, not just the Braves.