At the same time that Jerad Eickhoff was in the midst of a start where he allowed five home runs and seven total runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks – a start that ultimately cost him his spot in the rotation – former Phillie Charlie Morton was pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays Monday night. And by pitching, in Morton’s case, we mean dealing.
Morton, 35, tossed seven shutout innings for the Tampa Bay Rays Monday night, allowing just two hits and striking out seven in a win over the Oakland Athletics. Monday night wasn’t fluky – Morton has been unreal in 2019. He’s 8-0 with a 2.10 ERA, 2.66 FIP and 2.6 fWAR. Not only does he look likely to make the American League All-Star team for the second consecutive season, but Morton, the definition of a late-bloomer, could start the game.
While Morton’s Phillies tenure was brief – he pitched just 17.1 innings in 2016 before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury – he started to show the velocity increase that has made him one of the game’s better starters the last two-and-a-half seasons. And after helping the Houston Astros to win the World Series in 2017 and return to the ALCS in 2018, Morton was a free-agent this past offseason. At this juncture, it looks like a gigantic mistake that Phillies general manager Matt Klentak and more teams around the league weren’t more willing to pursue Morton.
A few days after the Phillies fell short in their pursuit of J.A. Happ, another former Phillie, Morton signed a two-year/$30 million free-agent contract with the small-market Rays. There was never an indication that the Phillies showed interest in a reunion with the right-hander.
Instead, Morton joined the upstart Rays. And according to FanGraphs‘ fWAR to dollars scale, he has been worth $20.6 million thus far. The fWAR to dollars scale is idealistic in nature – it doesn’t take into account what similar players make, a player’s history, the luxury tax threshold etc. – but it’s still pretty eye-opening to think that Morton has already been worth more than his salary according to that scale.
Meanwhile, Zach Eflin, who has a 2.81 ERA and 4.42 FIP, has been the Phillies best starter in 2019. Aaron Nola, a year after finishing third in National League Cy Young Award voting, has seen some regression, as he’s allowed 11 home runs in 76.2 innings. Jake Arrieta was serviceable for the Phillies in Tuesday night’s win over the Diamondbacks, but his ERA sits at a less-than-ideal 4.31 after 14 starts in 2019. Nick Pivetta, a popular breakout candidate ahead of the season, did throw a complete game in his most recent start, but had such a poor start to the season that he was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The fifth spot in the Phillies starting rotation has been a revolving door, filled by Vince Velasquez and Cole Irvin, among others.
For much of this season, there’s been speculation about what pitcher the Phillies will land ahead of the July 31 trade deadline, assuming they remain in playoff contention. Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman, Trevor Bauer, Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray’s names all have been bandied about. None of them are having as good of a season as Morton. And as noted on Tuesday’s edition of Locked On Phillies, this Phillies team feels multiple starters away from being able to not only make the playoffs, but compete for the National League pennant. Morton would have given the Phillies another legitimate front-line option, and wouldn’t have been so cost prohibitive that he would have prevented a major addition from being made this summer. The temptation to take a risk on a rental like Bumgarner may not have been as strong, though. Or perhaps signing Morton would have made pursuing such a piece a more sound investment, as it would have made the Phillies one piece away from being legitimate World Series contenders.
Sports talk seemingly wouldn’t exist without the cliche “Hindsight is 20/20.” And there’s some truth in that, Morton’s health history was the reason the Phillies (and a bunch of other teams) didn’t outbid the Rays, something they certainly could have done. There’s also some truth in the time-tested saying “You have to risk it to get the biscuit.” If the biscuit is the postseason or World Series, the Rays, despite playing in a crowded division, look to be in pretty good shape for taking a risk on Morton. The Phillies, well, they’re a ways further away from getting to the biscuit for not being willing to take a shot on Morton.
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