One of the premier starting pitching free agents is off the market. Charlie Morton has agreed to join the Atlanta Braves on a one-year pact, joining fellow veteran Drew Smyly in bolstering a young rotation.
Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson, Max Fried, Morton and Smyly is a serious starting staff. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson provide more than solid depth as Soroka returns to full health, too. Atlanta’s rotation was below league average last season, but in Morton and Smyly they have landed a pair of experienced arms for no long-term risk. They are earning a combined $26 million in 2021 with no commitment beyond that.
The Braves were already in a strong spot. The core of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna gives them an immense offensive core. Austin Riley and Cristian Pache give them a couple more controllable bats. If any team is poised to really challenge the Dodgers in the National League, it’s Atlanta. The free agent signings of Smyly and Morton only strengthen their position.
Morton didn’t have his best year in 2020. What was a poor regular season by his recent standards was compensated for in the playoffs. Morton, a late-career bloomer, has shone in the postseason. He did so again, giving up one earned in 15.2 innings against the Yankees and Astros. His poor outing in the World Series may stick in the memory, but that doesn’t take away from what is a stellar postseason record.
With the Braves destined for the playoffs once again, they now have a guy who has been there and done it. Morton might have bad playoff starts, but Atlanta can be sure he will cope with the pressure.
Impact on NL East
He’s closer to 40 than 30 and wasn’t at his best last season, yet Morton was still the second-best free agent starter on the market. He was the perfect short-term solution. The Braves snapped him up for $15 million on a one-year deal, a move that has become their speciality following the success stories of Marcell Ozuna and Josh Donaldson.
The New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies are both on the lookout for starting pitching. Philly needs arms behind Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler, the Mets’ situation is similar after Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman. Morton looked a great fit as the third guy in either rotation, and a one-year contract like he signed with Atlanta is very reasonable given the figures the respective owners have been willing to commit elsewhere.
Missing out on Morton means the Mets and Phillies are probably going to have to settle for starters a tier below Morton. That is, of course, assuming they don’t sign Trevor Bauer. Mike Minor, Jake Odorizzi, James Paxton and Garrett Richards are all okay options. For 2021, though, would you take any of them over Morton?
Injuries are a concern for Paxton, Richards and Odorizzi. Minor is an ironman by modern starting pitching standards, but he had a rough year in 2020.
Signing Morton was a coup for the Braves as an isolated event. When looked at through the lens of the National League East, with five teams trying to win, it becomes a greater deal still. The ball is firmly in New York and Philadelphia’s court.