In advance of his start in tomorrow’s ALCS Game 2, Rays right-hander Charlie Morton addressed his long-term future with reporters (including Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times and Jon Morosi of MLB Network). The 13-year MLB veteran suggested in February he might step away at the end of the 2020 season. That’s still a possibility, but Morton made clear today the decision is partly in the team’s hands.
The Rays hold a $15MM club option on Morton’s services for 2021, and the pitcher said he’d be happy to play out that deal if the team exercises the option. Morton, who makes his home in Florida, said he’d “be completely honored and privileged to continue to play for the Rays” next season. If Tampa Bay were to decline the option, though, he said he’d seriously discuss with his family whether to pursue another opportunity or to retire.
$15MM is seemingly a more than reasonable price for a pitcher of Morton’s caliber. The 36-year-old (37 in November) only pitched to a 4.74 ERA across nine starts in 2020, but his underlying numbers were far more favorable. Morton’s 24.7% strikeout rate and 12.1% swinging strike rate are down a bit from his 2019 performance, but each mark remains a bit better than league average. Equally important, Morton’s 93.9MPH average fastball velocity is more than sufficient to continue to get outs, even if it’s down a tick from last season.
Of course, Morton has quite recently performed like one of the top arms in the game. He finished 3rd in AL Cy Young voting just last season on the heels of a 3.05 ERA/2.81 FIP over 194.2 innings. From 2017-19, Morton combined for a 3.24 ERA in 508.1 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .218/.296/.359 slash line. Even if one doesn’t expect Morton to return to those ace-like levels, he still looks like a strong mid-rotation starter. Surely, the Rays won’t overreact to a couple months of bad run prevention numbers, considering Morton’s other strengths.
That said, Tampa Bay perennially runs one of the lowest payrolls in the league, leaving the front office constantly on the hunt for advantages on the margins. Teams are also generally expected to curtail spending league-wide in the wake of massive coronavirus-driven revenue losses. That makes it difficult to bank on any team’s spending habits in the coming months.
Nevertheless, it would register as a surprise to see the Rays decline Morton’s option. Tampa Bay only has $34.434 MM on the books for 2021, per Cot’s Contracts, albeit before factoring in a sizable arbitration class that includes the likes of Tyler Glasnow, Yandy Díaz and Hunter Renfroe.