ATLANTA -- While many of his former Braves teammates already ended their respective playing careers, Charlie Morton has returned to Atlanta looking to extend a late-career surge that he admits is hard to explain.
“I would try to explain it to people, but I think it would take too long,” Morton said.
Nearly two decades after selecting Morton in the third round of the 2002 MLB Draft, the Braves have welcomed him back with a one-year, $15 million deal. The arrangement has the chance to be a win-win for a pitcher who wanted to continue pitching close to his Sarasota, Fla., home and for a team that needed to add an experienced frontline starter.
But just a few years ago, nobody would have predicted this lucrative homecoming.
Morton finished the 2016 season as a 32-year-old pitcher with a 4.54 career ERA. Since then, has the fifth-best fWAR (13.0) among American League starting pitchers.
So a little more than a month after finishing a win shy of the World Series, the Braves have added a frontline starter to what should once again be a championship-caliber roster.
“It looks like they are really loose and fun-loving,” Morton said when asked to assess the current Braves. “But they are also extremely talented. I’m looking forward to being part of a group that looks forward to coming to the park every day just to hang out and be excited to play together.”
Morton’s easy-going attitude and dry wit should make him a good fit within the Braves’ clubhouse. The 37-year-old’s long journey through the professional ranks has also positioned him to provide guidance to Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Ian Anderson and the organization’s other young pitchers. Fried has accounted for 50 of the 93 career starts that trio has combined to make.
Morton now has the chance to be the mentor the Braves’ rotation lacked when he debuted on June 14, 2008. John Smoltz had undergone season-ending shoulder surgery and Tom Glavine had just started a lengthy injured list stint that would lead to what was the last start of his career. Tim Hudson was around for the first month, but he needed Tommy John surgery by the end of July.
“This is as talented a group as you’re going to find,” Morton said. “I’m just excited to get in the clubhouse to be around them.”
A lot has changed since the Braves sent Morton to the Pirates in the June 2009 trade that brought Nate McLouth to Atlanta.
When Morton last crossed paths with Freddie Freeman, the recently crowned National League MVP was a 19-year-old prospect who wore an offensive lineman’s number while sharing a Spring Training locker with Jason Heyward.
When Morton last crossed paths with Braves catching instructor Sal Fasano, Fasano was his batterymate with the 2008 Richmond Braves.
When Morton last worked with Brian Snitker, his new manager was serving as Bobby Cox’s third-base coach.
“I saw him at the  All-Star Game in Cleveland,” Morton said of Snitker ”I just remember him being a good human being. That’s been echoed whenever you’ve asked about it.”
The same can be said of Morton, who established himself as one of the game’s most likable players long before he joined the Astros in 2017 and suddenly became one of the top starters in baseball. His transformation has been influenced by a number of factors, including improved health.
Morton underwent Tommy John surgery and procedures to repair both hips between the end of the 2011 season and the end of the ‘14 season. In between, he started to get a feel for the value of his sinker, but he continued to struggle against left-handers.
After joining the Phillies in 2016, Morton was encouraged by the advice he received from Rick Kranitz, who is now the Braves’ pitching coach. Kranitz suggested the right-hander begin using his curveball much more frequently. The value of this tip was delayed when the hurler tore a hamstring while running to first base after bunting.
Still, the Astros were willing to provide a two-year, $14 million deal. They also suggested Morton stick with a heavy mix of curveballs. He helped Houston win the World Series in 2017 and posted a 3.13 ERA for them in ‘18. He finished third in AL Cy Young Award balloting after producing a 3.05 ERA for the Rays in ‘19.
“I don’t think you can pick just any one season or any one thing I have done,” Morton said. “I think it is just the culmination of years of just trying to figure things out.”
Morton drove a sprinter van to Atlanta to undergo his physical earlier this week. The plan had been to visit his father in Charleston, S.C., and then travel up the East Coast with his wife and four kids to visit his in-laws. But the recent COVID-19 numbers led him to instead drive back to the family’s Sarasota home on Tuesday.
When this offseason began, Morton hoped to continue pitching for the Rays, who are just an hour from his family’s home during both Spring Training and the regular season. But he was happy to get what he was seeking from the Braves, whose new Spring Training complex is just 45 minutes from his home.
“Being close to home was a big thing,” Morton said. “I was hoping we’d have options in this area of the country. I was glad they were calling and being aggressive early.”