The Atlanta Braves have now inked multiple former Philadelphia Phillies contracts this winter, and the second pact is the most notable.
Following their signing of Drew Smyly, Braves’ general manager Alex Anthopoulos doubled down and signed Charlie Morton to a one-year/$15 million deal, the team announced Tuesday.
Morton actually began his career with the Braves, posting an unsightly 6.15 ERA in 16 games for the team in 2008. In the summer of 2009, the Braves dealt Morton to the Pirates, where he spent parts of seven up-and-down seasons. In December of 2015, Morton was acquired by the rebuilding Phillies, and that’s truly where his story began to get interesting.
In 2015 with the Pirates, Morton’s average fastball velocity was 92.9 mph, but in parts of four starts with the Phillies he raised it to 94.7 mph, while posting a 4.15 ERA and 3.09 FIP. Unfortunately for Morton, he suffered a season-ending hamstring tear in his fourth start, as he attempted to run out a bunt. Ken Rosenthal would later report for FOX Sports that the Phillies had already been drawing trade interest in Morton before his injury. Meanwhile, Jon Heyman, writing for FanRag Sports at the time, said that Pete Mackanin’s staff made clear to the front office that they were in favor of picking up Morton’s $9.5 million club option for 2017, having been impressed with what they had seen. Ultimately, Matt Klentak and company elected to decline the option, despite the rebuilding Phillies having quite a bit of financial flexibility at the time.
Instead, Morton hit free agency and the Houston Astros made what seemed like a surprising decision at the time, signing Morton to a two-year deal that guaranteed him $14 million. The deal ultimately proved to be highway robbery, as Morton’s velocity continued to increase as he pitched like a star for the Astros. He closed out the team’s 2017 World Series victory, and made his first All-Star appearance in 2018, when he would go 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA and 3.59 FIP in 30 starts.
Morton hit the free agent market again in 2019, and the Phillies elected not to mount a serious effort for his services, despite two excellent seasons in Houston. Ultimately, the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays signed Morton to a two-year/$30 million, another contract that proved to be a steal. In 2019, Morton went 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA, 2.81 FIP and 6.1 fWAR, finishing only behind his former Astros’ teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the American League Cy Young Award race. 2020 wasn’t as effective for Morton, as he posted a 4.74 ERA in nine starts, but his 3.45 FIP suggests he was much more effective than his back-of-the-baseball-card stats would indicate.
Now, Morton heads back to Atlanta, joining a Braves team that finished within a victory of reaching the World Series, despite their starting rotation getting decimated by injuries. So far this winter, the Braves have added Smyly and Morton to Max Fried, who finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2020. Mike Soroka will return at some point from the torn achilles he suffered in August, and as recently as 2019, he looked like a front-line starter. Perhaps the three-time defending National League East Champion Braves don’t have as strong of a one-two at the top of their rotation as Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler, but they now have an improved rotation to go with an elite lineup and an elite bullpen.
Now 37, Morton is bound to hit a wall at some point. But the way his career has progressed, you get the feeling that he’s in the back half of his prime, despite what his biological clock may say. If Morton is able to pitch at a high level for Atlanta in 2020, it will be the latest reminder of the bad luck that the Phillies had with him in 2016, and that they’ve now passed up three shots to bring him back.
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