More than a decade after his departure, Charlie Morton is returning to Atlanta to join a Braves rotation that has been significantly strengthened in the past week.
Continuing to make early noise in what has otherwise been a quiet free-agent market, Atlanta signed Morton to a one-year, $15 million contract on Tuesday. This deal comes just a week after the team gave left-hander Drew Smyly a one-year, $11 million deal.
“We had an extremely short list of [starting pitchers] we would consider, basically two to three. And obviously we got two,” Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos said. “These were the two guys that were at the top of our list, Charlie and Drew."
Prioritizing the rotation wasn’t necessarily Anthopoulos’ plan entering the offseason. But while committing $26 million to these two top targets early, he has shown the team is committed to building on the success that put it a win away from advancing to this year’s World Series.
Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Morton will sit at the front of the Braves’ rotation, which will be rounded out by Smyly and Ian Anderson. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson, who both created impressive moments during the postseason, provide quality depth, which could prove valuable over a long season or in the form of trade currency.
“It’s going to be a longer season than it was this past year with 60 games,” Anthopoulos said. “Depth is critically important. Whoever you think your five is going to be going into Spring Training, I can pretty much guarantee you those five will not be standing upright by the time you break for Opening Day. You want to have at least six [starters] you feel good about.”
Morton posted a 4.74 ERA over nine starts for the Rays this year. After surrendering a season-high six earned runs on Opening Day, the 37-year-old right-hander produced a 3.71 ERA over the remainder of the season. Right shoulder inflammation forced him to miss three weeks in August, but he returned in the postseason.
Morton went five-plus innings and allowed two runs or fewer in each of his three starts across the 2020 American League Division Series and the AL Championship Series, but he surrendered five runs in 4 1/3 innings in Game 3 of the World Series. He has four wins in winner-take-all games, including this year's ALCS Game 7 against his former team, the Astros. That’s twice as many winner-take-all wins as any pitcher in postseason history.
Though Morton’s production declined during the shortened 2020 season, he showed his great potential when he posted a 3.05 ERA and produced a career-best 30.4 percent strikeout rate in '19. That performance earned him a third-place finish in balloting for the AL Cy Young Award.
“We saw him trending back to where he was in 2019,” Anthopoulos said. “In September and into the postseason, his stuff was back to where it was in 2019.”
Morton has created a late-career resurgence that has allowed him to live up to the promise he showed after the Braves took him in the third round of the 2002 MLB Draft. Atlanta used two of its first three selections that year to take Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann.
Morton debuted for the Braves in 2008 and he was traded to the Pirates the following summer in a deal that brought Nate McLouth to Atlanta. He posted a 4.39 ERA over seven injury-riddled seasons (142 starts) with Pittsburgh, then he made just four starts in '16 with the Phillies because of a hamstring tear.
Still, Morton’s attempt to transform his delivery by mimicking Roy Halladay’s led the Astros to give him a two-year, $14 million contract. The deal proved to be highly beneficial for both sides: The revitalized hurler posted a 3.62 ERA in 2017 and he proved dominant during the postseason run that gave Houston a World Series title. Morton proved the season wasn’t a fluke when he posted a 3.13 ERA over 30 starts in '18.