LAS VEGAS -- Free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton is wrapping up a two-year, $30 million deal with the Rays, according to multiple people familiar with the negotiations. The contract, which has not been confirmed by the club, will be finalized once Morton passes a physical.Morton, 35, is one of the crown
LAS VEGAS -- Free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton is wrapping up a two-year, $30 million deal with the Rays, according to multiple people familiar with the negotiations. The contract, which has not been confirmed by the club, will be finalized once Morton passes a physical.
Morton, 35, is one of the crown jewels of this offseason's free-agent class after two seasons with the Astros in which he made 55 starts with a 3.36 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
That 3.36 ERA is 10th lowest among American League starters in that time span. Morton's .220 opponents' batting average is seventh. He struck out 364, tied with James Paxton for eighth among AL starters.
Morton's potential deal comes during an offseason in which the Rays, with a payroll of only around $32 million, have aggressively cast a wide net to acquire both pitching and a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Morton would join 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and right-hander Tyler Glasnow as traditional starters for the Rays, with the "opener strategy" employed in the other two spots.
But with Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon expected back from Tommy John surgery around midseason, the Rays would have an assortment of options.
Morton had one of the more remarkable career rebirths during his two seasons with the Astros. After injuries limited him to just four starts with the Phillies in 2016, he wasn't even sure if he'd be offered a Major League contract.
However, the Astros saw a possible future ace in Morton, believing that refining his pitch usage along with some mechanical tweaks would turn him around.
Morton did just that, with a fastball that averaged almost 96 mph in 2018 and by throwing a career-high 29.3 percent curveballs. During the '17 postseason, he became the first pitcher in history to win both Game 7 of the AL Championship Series and the World Series.
Morton started Game 7 of the ALCS and pitched five shutout innings for the win against the Yankees. In Game 7 of the World Series, he entered the game in the sixth inning and allowed one earned run in four innings to finish up the Astros' first Series win.
Morton was a critical piece in helping the Astros win the World Series and did so not just with his great stuff but with a cerebral approach that meshed perfectly with Houston's utilization of data. He would contribute in other ways, too, particularly in priding himself on being a great teammate, part of the clubhouse glue essential to championship teams.
"Everything that's happened in my career, I've learned to appreciate it," Morton said in an interview this past summer. "I've learned to accept failure for what it is. Had I not won, had I not come to the Astros, I still would be extremely grateful for every opportunity that I've had. But I'll cherish that part of it for the rest of my life."
That postseason success made up for a lot of seasons when surgeries -- to both hips, his right elbow, a left hamstring that tore completely off the bone -- made Morton wonder if he'd ever be able to do the things he believed he was capable of doing. The hamstring injury limited him in 2016, and he entered free agency unsure of what the interest would be.
"I mean, I didn't think I was going to be out of baseball or anything like that," Morton said. "I just didn't know if there was a team out there that would believe I could stay healthy enough to be worth the investment."
The Astros saw it differently. They pursued Morton aggressively the moment he became a free agent. As Astros director of baseball operations Brandon Taubman said last summer, "He was the single most underappreciated free agent on the market. He's got amazing stuff. You can't ask for anything more."
The Astros were so clear about how much they wanted to get a deal done that Morton quickly told his agent to stop negotiating with other clubs.
"There was a lot of faith from the organization in me," Morton said. "It wasn't just, 'Hey, we're signing a guy and hoping he does good.' It was a real belief that I could contribute at a high level."
As the wild celebration began on the infield at Dodger Stadium after Game 7 of the World Series in 2017, Astros manager AJ Hinch noticed that the first thing Morton did was make eye contact with his wife Cindy and their son and daughter, Charles V and Grace. To Hinch, that gesture spoke volumes.
"He gets along well with teammates in every corner of the clubhouse," Hinch said this past summer. "He cares about people and has a great sense of humor and a way of connecting with them."
To which Morton said: "It's the most rewarding thing for me, when people talk about me as a person. Baseball is secondary. I'm going to be a normal, everyday guy, hanging out with my kids and my wife a lot longer than I'm going to be a baseball player. So, to me, how I leave my mark on the planet is going to be from something else, not baseball. Right now, I'm just a guy playing baseball."
After the 2017 World Series ended, Morton said it had a dreamlike quality, but he understood its larger meaning. He'd worked so hard and so long to be in this spot, and he would not let it slip through his fingers. He knew, too, what it would mean. After the seventh inning of Game 7, he asked Mike Acosta, the Astros' authentication manager, to save him a World Series baseball. "It's at the house, in a sock," Morton said.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.