Will Braves regret giving Charlie Morton $20 million contract extension?

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The Braves are rumored to be threats to sign Jacob deGrom away from the Mets, according to reports from Buster Olney and Andy Martino. However, Ken Rosthenal reported a deal between the two sides was highly unlikely. When the Braves re-signed Charlie Morton during the season, it all but guaranteed that Alex Anthopoulos wouldn’t be signing a frontline starter.

Atlanta gave Morton a similar deal in September as they did in 2021 — a one-year contract worth $20 million with a club option for the same amount the following year, meaning there is a chance he pitches for the Braves when he’s 40 years old. And there’s a chance it could turn into a contract that AA regrets. During the World Series run, Morton was the Game 1 starter and veteran leader of the rotation. He was fabulous that season, posting a 3.34 ERA, 3.18 FIP, and 10.6 SO/9.

Morton gave Max Fried a run for his money as the team’s ace. A leg injury prematurely ended his 2021 campaign, but he did end up pitching another inning on that broken leg, an all-time gusty move. However, the team had already given Morton the $20 million contract for the following season, so all they could do is hope for a successful rehab.

For the most part, it seems the leg healed correctly, but Morton’s production was full of ups and downs. It’s fair to chalk up the combination of the injury and MLB lockout, which prohibited him from rehabbing with the team, as a reason for his 2022 letdown. Morton finished with a 4.34 ERA and 4.26 FIP, but the Braves handed him another $20 million deal before the season even ended, knowing one of their best free agents — Dansby Swanson — would test unrestricted free agency following a career year.

Morton was amid one of the worst seasons he’s had in a long time. Since joining the Astros in 2017, he has had a 3.34 ERA, excluding last year’s numbers. It was safe to assume that Morton was staving off father time when the Braves handed him the first $20 million contract, but the decision to do it again wasn’t as clear.

The Braves were working out a contract extension with Spencer Strider. Though it hadn’t been announced before Morton’s deal, the front office knew it was coming down the pipe. Strider, Max Fried, and Kyle Wright is a more than formidable three-headed monster, which doesn’t include the bevy of arms waiting in the wings to grab the final couple of spots in the rotation.

Bryce Elder, Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka, Kyle Muller, and others could’ve very easily rounded out the starting-five, and the Braves would have an extra $20 million to spend on a frontline starter like deGrom, a marquee free agent shortstop, or bolster another facet of the roster.

Basically every single one of Morton’s metrics regressed in 2022 from 2021. His fastball velocity was down, even if it was marginal, and batters were making more consistent contact against him. Opposing batters barreled balls 9.5% of the time and had hard contact 42.1% of the time in 2022, compared to 4.9% and 32.5% of the time in 2021, respectively, per Baseball Savant.

To be fair, Morton wasn’t all bad last season. The whole body of work doesn’t tell the entire story. In his first 12 starts, Morton posted a 5.67 ERA and only went at least six innings twice. In the next 19 starts, Morton posted a 3.63 ERA, 10 of which he went at least six innings. So, it’s fair to say the injury and unusual offseason hampered him during the beginning of his season, and it just took him longer to get into his groove.

Still, $20 million is a steep price to pay for the kind of season Morton had in 2022, meaning the front office and coaching staff clearly believe a fully healthy offseason will have the veteran back to the 2017-21 version of himself. If that’s the case, this contract will turn out to be a slam dunk. But there was regression last season, and pitchers typically don’t find a third-gear in their age-39 campaign… unless you’re Justin Verlander, of course.

One facet of bringing Morton back that also can’t be overlooked is his value in the clubhouse, something AA and the Braves have made a priority. Morton is a veteran, has seen a lot, and can give a very young rotation all the advice in the world. Kyle Wright, Spencer Strider, and all of the arms battling for the fifth spot in the rotation can lean on Uncle Charlie, who is more than willing to impart wisdom. Hell, Max Fried can still go to the veteran in times of need. That’s important. However, it won’t be worth it if Morton looks like he did in 2022, and the Braves aren’t able to upgrade their roster elsewhere.

David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

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