Charlie Morton will reunite with the Braves after the right-handed pitcher agreed to terms on a one-year, $15 million deal Tuesday, the team announced.
Morton, 37, became a free agent in October after Tampa Bay declined his 2021 option worth $15 million. Morton was 2-2 this season in nine starts with a 4.74 ERA, with 42 strikeouts and 10 walks, and helped the Rays to the American League pennant. He won Game 7 of the AL Championship series over Houston to put Tampa Bay in the World Series.
Morton first joined the Rays on a two-year, $30 million deal in 2019. In his two seasons, he was 18-8 with a 3.33 ERA. He finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019. The Rays declined their option in late October, though there was mutual interest in his return. Morton resides in Bradenton, Fla.
After allowing six runs in his first start of the truncated season, Morton allowed no more than three in his next eight outings. He improved further in the postseason, earning a 2.70 ERA with a 23:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in four starts (20 innings).
“With Charlie, he got off to a slow start and quarantine, doing more work on what his routine was going into the summer camp, that threw him off a little bit, but we saw him trending back to where he was in 2019 in September,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “And into the postseason, his stuff was back to where it was in 2019. The offseason, being shutdown, his routine got thrown off. Our hope and plan is that he’ll continue to follow the routine that led into 2019. Hopefully we get a great year from him in 2021.”
Now, Morton returns to where his career began. He was drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 2002 draft out of Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn., and made his major-league debut with the Braves in 2008. He went 6-8 with a 6.15 ERA in 16 appearances, including 15 starts. He was traded to Pittsburgh the following year in a package for outfielder Nate McLouth and spent seven seasons with the Pirates. He moved to Philadelphia for the 2016 season before joining Houston in 2017 and then Tampa Bay.
Morton, an All-Star in 2018 and 2019, helped the Astros to the World Series title in 2017 over Los Angeles. He’s developed a reputation as a big-game pitcher, earning a 3.38 ERA in 13 postseason appearances (12 starts). And that’s exactly what the Braves targeted.
Credit: Atlanta Braves
The Braves are building their roster with the postseason in mind after winning the National League East three consecutive seasons. They fell 12 outs short of a World Series appearance last month, falling to the Dodgers in a seven-game NL Championship Series. They went on that run despite seemingly endless rotation woes. They heavily relied on Max Fried and Ian Anderson in the postseason, with the duo pitching four of the first five playoff games en route to the NLCS.
While the Braves didn’t declare the rotation the No. 1 priority, the board fell in their favor because like last winter, they moved aggressively. Last week, the Braves signed lefty Drew Smyly on a one-year, $11 million upside play. In Morton, they’re adding a more known quantity — and a player who should drastically affect their odds in the playoffs.
“We had an extremely short list of guys we would consider,” Anthopoulos said. “Basically two of the three, and obviously we got two. These were the two guys at the top of our list with Charlie and Drew. We’re really glad we were able to get both guys.”
The rotation, when healthy, will include Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Morton and Smyly. It’s the most complete rotation the Braves have had during their newfound contention window, and they still boast several young pitchers as depth, led by Kyle Wright, Huascar Ynoa and Bryse Wilson. As Anthopoulos has stressed, teams need at least six starters “you feel good about.”
Those pitchers will be working with catcher Travis d’Arnaud, whom Anthopoulos signed from the Rays last winter. Morton had a 3.38 ERA and held opponents to a .202 average in the 12 games he worked with d’Arnaud in 2019.
With $26 million invested in solidifying the rotation, the Braves can turn their focus elsewhere. That conversations begins with slugger Marcell Ozuna, who’s coming off an MVP-worthy campaign, or perhaps finding his replacement(s) to keep the offense among baseball’s most potent. The Braves also have three key relievers - Mark Melancon, Shane Green, Darren O’Day - as free agents to re-sign or replace (possibly internally).
Under Anthopoulos, the big-ticket trades haven’t come to fruition, but the team has been a major free-agency player. It signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann before the 2019 season and acquired Ozuna, d’Arnaud, Will Smith and Cole Hamels before the 2020 campaign. The organization has already added two rotation upgrades this month in what’s been an otherwise slow-developing market across baseball.
Gabriel Burns is a general assignment reporter and features writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After four years on the Braves beat, he's expanded his horizons and covers all sports. You'll find him writing about MLB, NFL, NBA, college football and other Atlanta-centric happenings.