Braves: Outlook for Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton in 2021

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Last November was a busy month for the Braves as the team signed a pair of veteran starting pitchers whose careers have taken very different paths over the last few seasons. Left-hander Drew Smyly was acquired first on November 16th on an affordable one-year, $11 million deal, then righty Charlie Morton eight days later for $15 million (also a one-year agreement). With Atlanta sitting pat and no new rumors coming down the pipe recently, now’s a good time to look at what Smyly and Morton bring to the table this upcoming season. 


Smyly’s long road back

If you’re not very familiar with the 31-year-old Smyly, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The former 2nd round pick (2010 draft) has only tallied 114 big league innings over the last three seasons, thanks to an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery back in July of 2017. Pre-TJ, Smyly was a solid major league starter, laboring for five seasons, first with the Tigers (the team that drafted him) and then with the Rays. From 2012-16, Smyly pitched to a solid 3.74 ERA, including 8.7 strikeouts per nine and just 2.5 walks per nine. He was never an ace, but Smyly was consistently good for 100+ innings of league-average work on the mound, essentially amounting to a yearly a 2-WAR starter. Last season Smyly enjoyed a pretty fair campaign with the Giants, finishing the year with a 3.42 ERA across 26.1 innings. Armed with a mid-90s MPH fastball, Smyly’s current three-pitch repertoire consists primarily of four-seamers and an above-average curveball. He’ll also occasionally mix in a 90 MPH cutter.


Back where it all started for Morton 

For those unaware, Morton was originally drafted out of high school by Atlanta in the 3rd round of the 2002 draft and spent his first 8.5 professional seasons with the Braves, mostly pitching in the minors. A rough MLB debut season in 2008 led to him being traded to the Pirates in 2009 in exchange for outfielder Nate McLouth (yah… that was a baaad trade). Morton wound up developing into a mostly average major league pitcher for Pittsburgh, playing seven seasons for the Bucs and one season with the Phillies from 2009-16. However, once with the Astros in 2017 (then 33-years-old), everything changed as Morton put together back-to-back big years, even earning an All-Star invite in 2018 thanks to a 3.13 ERA and 15-3 record. The 6-foot-5 righty built off that ’18 campaign and was even more dominant in 2019 while with the Rays, posting a career-high 4.9 WAR while accumulating 194.2 innings and 240 strikeouts (both marks also career-highs). He finished third in the AL Cy Young vote and 21st in the MVP race. At 36, Morton had another strong year in Tampa Bay last season, averaging 9.9 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 in 38 innings, finishing the year with a 4.74 ERA.


What to expect from Smyly and Morton 

It’s fair to say that there’s a bit more excitement surrounding Morton as opposed to Smyly — the numbers illustrate that fact. And while Morton comes with his own durability concerns, it’s quite unrealistic to expect anywhere near 200 innings from either starter (Morton hit 194.2 innings in 2019 while Smyly’s career-high is 175.1 from 2016). 

But with Max Fried headlining Atlanta’s ’21 rotation, to go along with Ian Anderson and at some point Mike Soroka (who, next month, will be six months removed from his Achilles tear last August), the Braves won’t need 30 starts apiece from the likes of Smyly or Morton. With what the team already has at the MLB level, coupled with several other depth options, Smyly and Morton are here to simply help solidify an already talented group of pitchers. 

Instead of pulling from the minors to fill the staff’s nos. 4 and 5 spots, resulting in a young pitcher being thrown in the fire (as has been the case in many recent seasons), in 2021, the Braves will actually have a pair of seasoned big leaguers to hold down the back-end. That all by itself makes these two veterans more than worth their salary this year.


The “trusty” projections

FanGraphs has released both their 2021 Steamer and ZiPS projections, though obviously any full-season projection should be taken with a grain of salt considering the circumstances surrounding last season and potentially the upcoming season. 

For Smyly, Steamer really paints an attractive picture for what we could see from him as it has the lefty posting the second-best season of his career in terms of WAR (2 WAR), tallying 152 innings from 28 starts and pitching to a 4.22 ERA to along with 10.37 K/9 and 3.38 BB/9. That’s a helluva fifth starter! Although, ZiPS is a little less kind, predicting about half the production (1 WAR) and a lot fewer innings (97.7 IP), as well as a half a run more in ERA (4.70) and fewer strikeouts per nine (9.6 K/9) but with a better walk rate (3.3 BB/9). All-in-all, if Smyly can put together a 2021 in between those two projections, I’d call his signing an absolute success.

As mentioned above, Morton is a bit more exciting, and both of FG’s projections, if accurate, would make his $15 million salary a steal for the Braves. Steamer has the righty at 3.3 WAR for ’21, which would also be the second-most productive season of his career (WAR-wise). Steamer does project a continuation of Morton’s drop in K rate over the last few seasons (9.49 K/9 in ’21), but that’s certainly acceptable if he’s able to reach 168 innings (29 starts) and post a 3.75 ERA like projected. How many teams in the majors have a no. 3 or 4 starter worth 3 WAR? Probably not many… or even none. Then there’s ZiPS, which may project less WAR (3 WAR), but sees Morton better with his run-prevention (3.66 ERA) and strikeout rate (9.9 K/9), however at the cost of tallying fewer innings (137.2 IP). In fact, Morton’s ’21 ZiPS is almost exactly the same as the Mets’ Marcus Stroman, though he has Stroman beat in nearly every stat category, including WAR (3.0 / 2.6).

The point remains, at a total cost of $26 million in 2021 salaries, the Braves could very likely gain nearly 5 WAR overall from the Smyly/Morton pair. If using the $9M/1 WAR ratio that’s popular in the MLB industry, that’s five extra WAR at a more than 40% discount. 

Sure, there’s plenty of risk involved. Smyly hasn’t pitched anywhere near a full season recently, and Morton is entering his age-37 season. But with Atlanta’s current starting rotation, the team has some wiggle room to work with in the event Smyly or Morton don’t quite live up to their projections. These were two solid signings by GM Alex Anthopoulos, and if the two veterans hit their marks during the regular season, the Braves will have a strong shot at going deep in the playoffs. 

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