Right-hander Charlie Morton, an All-Star last season for the first time in an 11-year career, on Wednesday agreed to terms with the Tampa Bay Rays on a two-year, $30 million contract, sources with knowledge of the deal told Yahoo Sports.
Morton, 35, will join a Rays team that won 90 games last season with a bullpen-heavy approach they plan on replicating in 2019. American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Morton will headline a rotation that also should include Tyler Glasnow but could be heavy with so-called openers, relief pitchers used in starting roles.
The deal also includes a third-year option that could be as low as $1 million if Morton misses significant time over the first two years because of injury and could be worth as much as $15 million if he remains healthy.
He carried a career record of 46-71 and an ERA of 4.54 when he signed a two-year, $14 million contract with the Astros shortly after the 2016 season. The season before, in Philadelphia, Morton had been limited to 17 1/3 innings because of a torn hamstring that required surgery.
As an Astro, he was 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA. He also won two postseason games during the Astros’ run to the 2017 World Series championship, including Game 7 of the World Series, in which he allowed one run in four innings of relief.
A winding career trajectory – a time trying to emulate Roy Halladay’s mechanics, Tommy John surgery, hip surgery and a breakthrough that added several miles per hour on his fastball – led to Morton becoming a critical member of the Astros’ deep and effective rotation. Also, it kept him relevant in free agency, even as one of the market’s older options.
Compared to the middle of his career, when his strategy was to offer as few four-seam fastballs as possible and pitch to soft contact, Morton by his Houston seasons had doubled his strikeout rate. As a result, he allowed fewer hits and fewer baserunners. In 2017, he was 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA. Last season, he was 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA in 30 starts. He was fifth in the American League in strikeouts per nine and hits per nine. He also led his league in hit batters for the fourth time in his career and is second in that category, to CC Sabathia, among active players.
Morton has said that being traded from the Pirates to the Phillies after the 2015 season was traumatic for him, and that he spent that offseason attempting to become more of a power pitcher. The strategy consisted of, he once described, “Listening to my body. … I don’t think I made any substantial changes, in terms of mechanics, but I think I started trusting myself, what my body was telling me, what my arm was telling me, everything.
“It was from then on that I started noticing, ‘Hey, it’s harder to hit 95 miles an hour on your hands than it is 91, 92 down in the zone.’ I started pitching all over the place. I started elevating the cutter. I started throwing a curveball a lot more.”
The result was a different pitcher, a better pitcher. And, two years later, a valued commodity in free agency, even at 35.
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