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Rays decline options on Morton, Zunino

TB not ruling our reunions with club's 'outstanding representatives'
@juanctoribio
October 30, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays will not be picking up the 2021 club options for right-hander Charlie Morton and catcher Mike Zunino, making them free agents. General manager Erik Neander added that the club will keep the door open to bringing both players back next season. Morton’s option was for

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays will not be picking up the 2021 club options for right-hander Charlie Morton and catcher Mike Zunino, making them free agents. General manager Erik Neander added that the club will keep the door open to bringing both players back next season.

Morton’s option was for $15 million, while Zunino’s was for $4.5 million. Though the Rays’ priority will now shift in trying to bring Morton back at a different figure, by declining the option it opens the possibility that the soon-to-be 37-year-old righty signs with another team or opts to retire.

Over the course of the season, Morton had stated that if the Rays picked up his third-year option, he would automatically return for one more season in order to honor his commitment.

“Charlie has been very open about the uncertainty and his future and where he’s at,” Neander said. “If he still wants to play next year and things line up where it could be here and sees it that way, we’re going to try everything we can to make that happen and to be as creative and supportive to his considerations and his needs of what’s important to him and his family.”

In his two seasons with the Rays, Morton went 18-8 with a 3.33 ERA and finished third in the 2019 American League Cy Young Award race. Morton’s success was even more on display in the postseason, as the right-hander went 5-1 with a 2.10 ERA in six games. Perhaps the most impressive part of Morton’s postseason resume is the fact that he helped Tampa Bay win three elimination games, including Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the Astros.

Off the field, Morton mentored some of the younger Rays pitchers, including Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. Position players such as Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows also raved about the right-hander, particularly during their trip together to the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland.

“He’s wonderful,” Neander said. “I made sure he knew how much we appreciate him, not only his on-field contributions the last two years but everything he did to advance our group culturally. His leadership and guidance for a young pitcher is second to none.”

If the two sides are unable to come to an agreement, the Rays will likely be in the free-agent or trade market for starting-pitching depth. Yonny Chirinos will miss the entire 2021 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August, and Brendan McKay likely won’t be ready for Opening Day as he recovers from left shoulder surgery, Neander said.

Rays' Top 30 Prospects list

Shane McClanahan, Joe Ryan, Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming would have increased opportunities if Morton signs elsewhere or retires.

Zunino, on the other hand, will also be an option for the Rays as the offseason moves along, but the veteran catcher should have a sizable market due to his defensive prowess. Zunino played 118 games for Tampa Bay over the last two seasons, and while he struggled offensively with a .556 OPS, he made up for it with his contributions handling the club's pitching staff.

The Rays will weigh if they want to bring back Zunino after the changes to the other options on their roster. Michael Perez was claimed by the Pirates on Friday and Kevan Smith cleared waivers, sources told MLB.com, in order to make room on the 40-man roster for the handful of pitchers coming off the 45-day injured list. Top catching prospect Ronaldo Hernandez spent all season at the alternate training site and likely won’t be ready to contribute at the big league level by Opening Day.

“Those two guys, pretty outstanding representatives of our team, our clubhouse,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “We talk a lot about our pitchers for good reason, but I think you have to give Mike Zunino -- I know you have to give Mike Zunino -- a lot of credit for helping and navigating to have that type of success.”

Juan Toribio covers the Dodgers for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.