Thursday, November 18, 2021
Though I believed he could be another potential savvy one-year signing for Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos (even if in reality it was probably doubtful), 38-year-old and future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander re-signed with the Astros recently for one year and $25 million, with a player option for the 2023 season. At the time of JV’s signing, I was literally in the middle of a post on the positives of possibly adding the seasoned right-hander, but now that we know what it cost Houston to retain him, I’m obviously less interested.
But the Verlander deal did provide me with another notable takeaway, and that’s that the Charlie Morton extension from back in early September was a really smart move, perhaps even more now.
If you recall, Atlanta locked up Morton for at least another season as the team gave him a new contract worth $20 million back on Sept. 3, with a $20 million option for the 2023 season. Given how well Morton pitched in 2021, the deal not only made sense from a talent and value standpoint, but it also gives the Braves young starting rotation some much-needed stability for yet another year, which as we’ve seen with the Mike Soroka and Huascar Ynoa injuries, is an incredibly significant thing to have.
In fact, retaining Morton may be all the Braves really needed to do regarding its starting staff. You could argue that another viable arm would help, but considering literally every starter from last year is returning, save for lefty Drew Smyly, Atlanta’s rotation should be pretty well set at this point.
Of course, counting on a full season of Soroka is no longer a smart thing to do anymore, but the Braves will again wield Morton, Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Ynoa, to go along with a surging Kyle Muller and an improved Kyle Wright, as its key contributors. And that’s not even counting depth options like Touki Toussaint and Tucker Davidson – two pitchers that, at times, have shown plenty of talent to pick up a start here and there during a long 162-game season. Hell, that’s seven guys that have proven they can perform in the big leagues (with Wright’s notable moments coming in the postseason), to go with two others (in Touki and Davidson) plenty capable of spot starts. When’s the last time the Braves have headed into a new campaign with this many competent starters? I don’t know if I recall such a time.
But the Morton deal is what really makes Atlanta’s rotation outlook feel ready for the 2022 season. The Braves starting staff may have finished outside the top-ten, compared to other MLB units this past year, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort by the veteran righty, who in 2021 comprised of nearly 30% of the group’s combined 15.9 fWAR, with a rotation-leading 4.6 WAR (nearly a full 1 WAR more than the next-best Atlanta starter).
It’s not all roses, though, as Morton recently underwent surgery to repair the right fibula he fractured during the playoffs. But 2021 makes four-straight full seasons now that the veteran has delivered. Just consider how great Morton has been when looking at his numbers since 2017 (excluding the shortened 2020 campaign).
Morton from 2017-21 (excluding ’20)
694 IP, 3.29 ERA, 10.5 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 16.5 WAR
Diving deeper into his last four full seasons: Morton has been a 4-WAR pitcher who’s averaged 174.2 innings per season, to go with 205 strikeouts. The Braves of course have some extremely talented young arms in the majors now (in Soroka, Fried, Anderson and Ynoa), but they don’t have anyone with the kind of consistent track record that Morton has put together over the last several years. And trying to bring in someone off the FA market with those numbers would probably cost the team at least $100 million, not to mention several seasons worth of a commitment.
Although, to be fair, even though Morton’s very short-term extension comes with minimal risk, there are some hazards involved. With the New Jersey native entering his age-38 season 2022, you could argue that that $20 million could’ve not only went to someone younger, but also been thrown into the Freddie Freeman pot or perhaps allowed the Braves to retain one or two of the July additions (Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario or Jorge Soler). I mean, it does look a little suspicious that, now with 14 years in the majors, Morton decides to post his two best seasons during the last three campaigns (6 WAR in 2019 and 4.6 WAR in ’21). Other than his third-place finish in the AL Cy Young race two years ago and last season’s big year, Morton’s next best performance was as a 33-year-old with Houston in 2017, when he put up 3.1 WAR thanks to a decent 3.62 ERA in 146.2 innings. Critics of Morton could very easily call his most-recent surge more of an outlier than anything else (even though his velocity has risen over the last three seasons, an indication that he’s simply gotten stronger).
But I’d rather give credit where credit is due and surmise that Morton’s recent ascent has much more to do with plain good luck. I believe, along with the help of the Braves pitching department, the MLB veteran has reached a point in his career that he’s essentially mastered his craft. If you’ve ever listened to Morton talk pitching, he explains his job almost like an artist. He’s just that good.
So who knows what kind of moves Anthopoulos has up his sleeve this winter, or if there are even plans to add to the starting rotation. As I mentioned above, the Braves have quite the foundation already put together.
But regardless, the Braves GM may have made his best pitching move during the 2021 regular season, when he decided to hold on to Morton.