Braves add Morton and quickly go from short on proven pitchers to deep

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Brave GM Alex Anthopoulos addresses free-agent signings of pitchers Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton, and what more to expect from the market.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

The Braves brought back long-ago draft pick Charlie Morton on Tuesday for one year and $15 million. The Braves believe he can regain his form from 2019, when he finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting for the Rays. A week earlier the Braves signed Drew Smyly for one year and $11 million. They believe he’s on the come after a good season with the Giants.

The Braves lost the best-of-seven National League Championship Series to the Dodgers because they didn’t have enough pitching. They quickly signed two starters they think can be good in October, and give the team a better chance of making it there. The Braves’ pitching will be better if they are right about one of those guys; if both are hits, the Braves might have the deepest staff in the NL East.

“We had an extremely short list of guys we would consider,” Anthopoulos said. “Basically two to three. And obviously we got two. These were the two guys at the top of our list.”

That means the list does not include Trevor Bauer, the best starter on the market. He’ll receive significant, multi-year contract offers. The Braves don’t do those. The closest they’ve come is with relief pitcher Will Smith, who signed for $39 million over three years (since prorated by the short season). Bauer and Stroman will get much more than that.

But there’s less incentive now for the Braves to do big deals for starting pitchers. Two of their prospects, Mike Soroka and Max Fried, have become effective MLB pitchers. There’s also Ian Anderson, who is worth waiting and seeing. Adding Morton and Smyly to that group means none those young pitchers will have to end up carrying the staff.

Morton, 37, instantly becomes the most accomplished Braves starter. He’s had a late-career resurgence with a 3.34 ERA in 97 starts from 2017-20. Morton has a career 3.38 ERA in the postseason games (13 appearances). The question is how Morton has left after more than 1,400 career innings.

In 2019, Morton logged a career-high 194 2/3 innings with a career-best 3.05 ERA. Then he had a 4.74 ERA in nine starts last season. Shoulder inflammation shelved Morton for three weeks in 2020.

Anthopoulos attributed Morton’s regression to the COVID-19 shutdown interrupting his normal throwing program. Morton’s improved velocity and results later in the year support that view.

“We saw him trending back to where he was in 2019, and into the postseason, his stuff was back to where it was in 2019,” Anthopoulos said.

This is the third season in row that Anthopoulos has plugged a rotation hole with a veteran on a one-year deal. The Braves signed Dallas Keuchel for $13 million in June 2019. He was OK. The Braves signed Cole Hamels for $18 million December. He made one start in September before shutting it down.

I think Morton’s profile means he’ll turn out better than Keuchel, and superior to what Hamels can offer at this stage of his career. When the Braves signed Smith, I opined that he was the kind of pitcher they needed because he strikes out a lot of batters, walks few and keeps the ball in the park. Those are the components of Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which attempts to take defense and luck on balls in play out of the equation.

Per FanGraphs, Morton’s 3.27 FIP since 2016 is 11th-best in MLB among qualified MLB pitchers. His swinging strikes per pitch is 29th-best during that span. Hitters don’t often put good wood on Morton’s pitches. His average exit velocity allowed is tied for 13th-best in MLB since 2016 and his hard-hit percentage ranks 20th.

Smyly had a 2.01 FIP in 2020. That’s based on a small sample of 29 1/3 innings and much better than his career 4.15 FIP. If he’s really on the come, then he might still miss a lot of bats in 2021.

“I think there’s a theme there with both Charlie and with Drew: power and swing-and-miss stuff,” Anthopoulos said. “In the postseason, that certainly plays. Again, you need to get there.”

The Braves have a better chance of making it back with Morton and Smyly. If they didn’t sign them, they might have had to fill their 2021 rotation with unproven young pitchers or free agents that aren’t as good.

There’s a big drop off on the market after Bauer. The Braves landed on one of the best of the rest, Morton, and took a chance on Smyly. The latter’s contract is an “overpay” for most teams (that’s always been a strange term to use for someone else’s money). It may not be for the Braves, who are World Series contenders in need of quality arms.

Now Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson can be stashed at Triple-A Gwinnett. Each had good moments in the 2020 postseason, but unlike Soroka and Fried, they haven’t proved they are reliable MLB starters. They’ll have a chance to work on their craft in the minors and get the call to the big-league club when needed.

Chances are they’ll get their turn. Morton said he was contemplating retirement if the Rays didn’t pick up his option (that was in February, before the pandemic changed everything). Anderson is good, but still green. The Braves are unlikely to have such awful injury luck again, but pitchers will miss time.

The Braves lost all their (second) opening-day starters during the 2020 season because of injury or ineffectiveness. They still won the NL East again and nearly made it to the World Series. But they may have been home in October during a normal year. The 80-game schedule worked in their favor.

Baseball is back to 162 games for 2021. It’s hard to win with bad pitching for that long.

“You want to have at least six (starters) that you feel good about,” Anthopoulos said.

The Braves have that for 2021. Now they have one more major hole to fill.

Marcell Ozuna is a free agent after he nearly won the NL Triple Crown during the short season. Signing him as a replacement for Josh Donaldson was a major reason why the Braves were good again. That made Anthopoulos 2-for-2 on one-year deals for sluggers.

Anthopoulos said he’s been trying to sign a lineup regular.

“We haven’t been successful from a position-player standpoint,” Anthopoulos said. “I don’t know that we will. But obviously it’s still early in the offseason.”

It already has been a good one for the Braves. They’ve quickly gone from so short on quality starters that Wilson started a pivotal postseason game, to enough of them that even the options at Gwinnett won’t be so bad. And if Anthopoulos is right about both Morton and Smyly, then it shouldn’t be a pitching mismatch if they see the Dodgers again in October.

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