The Rays have crafted a reputation as one of the sport’s best organizations at finding undervalued talent. That typically manifests in frequent roster churn via trades and waiver claims. Given their budgetary limitations, the franchise has been decidedly less active in free agency. Last offseason, Tampa surprisingly stepped up to ink one of the better players available on the open market: right-hander Charlie Morton. The early returns couldn’t have been better.
In December 2018, the Rays added Morton on a two-year, $30MM guarantee. That’s hardly overwhelming money for most teams, but it no doubt accounted as a major splash by Rays’ standards. Morton’s $15MM salary counted for about a quarter of the club’s $60MM season-opening payroll last season, according to Cot’s Contracts. It was a major gamble for a front office lacking the resources of most of its rivals across the league. Nor was this a situation of a low-payroll team stepping in only after a free agent’s market fell way below expectations. Entering the offseason, the MLBTR staff projected a two-year, $32MM deal for Morton that almost perfectly aligned with the guarantee he actually received.
Morton’s age (he’d just turned 35) was the impetus for the contract’s short term. His performance over the prior two years had been fantastic. With the Astros from 2017-18, he spun 313.2 innings of 3.36 ERA/3.53 FIP ball with strong strikeout and ground ball numbers. His days as an unexciting back-end starter in Pittsburgh were long behind him. Morton had reinvented himself in Houston, sitting in the mid-90’s with a hammer curveball.
Nevertheless, even the Astros were reluctant to completely buy Morton’s late-career renaissance. They declined to offer him a $17.9MM qualifying offer. It was a bizarre move at the time that only looks worse in hindsight. That decision proved beneficial for Morton as a free agent, since his suitors needn’t worry about losing a draft pick to sign him. It proved equally beneficial for the Rays.
Would Tampa have still ponied up for Morton if doing so would’ve cost them their third-highest pick in the 2019 draft? Unclear. (They ended up selecting Campbell University right-hander Seth Johnson with that selection, if you’re curious). Fortunately, they didn’t have to make that decision.
Morton was brilliant in year one in Tampa. He tossed a career-high 194.2 innings with career-best marks in ERA (3.05), FIP (2.81), strikeout rate (30.4%), and both fWAR (6.1) and bWAR (4.9). He finished third in AL Cy Young voting, behind only a pair of former Astros’ teammates, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Morton was no doubt one of the biggest reasons the Rays advanced to an ALDS.
What does the future hold for Morton in Tampa? Hopefully, he’ll be able to play out his final guaranteed year under contract in 2020. If MLB doesn’t come to an agreement on a return to play this season, his situation will be more in flux. Morton’s contract calls for a club option of up to $15MM in 2021, one the Rays would almost certainly exercise given his 2019 dominance.
In February, though, Morton indicated he wasn’t sure he’d want to continue playing beyond 2020. How a potentially cancelled season could impact his thought process isn’t yet clear. Whatever the future holds, it’s apparent the Rays have already gotten a return well above and beyond the cost to bring Morton aboard.