As of this writing, there are 143 free agents available. There are more players rumored to be available through trade. Despite this, you could count on two hands the amount of players who are regularly discussed as possibilities for the Cardinals and one of them already signed. This, of course, makes sense. The Cardinals are looking for upgrades, and without any true holes on the roster, that means there are only a few players who represent upgrades.
I thought today I’d move away the discussion from the obvious targets and present a possible avenue to improve the rotation if the Cardinals choose to do so. This pitcher was worth 3.1 fWAR and 3.5 bWAR last year. He pitched in 30 games and had his lowest career ERA of his career last year with 3.13 ERA. You’d think this man would be a hot commodity on the free agent market, but he is not. That’s because he is 35 with injury concerns.
It’s actually fairly remarkable Charlie Morton (the pitcher I was talking about above in case you didn’t figure that out) is still pitching in the majors at 35. He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2002 MLB Draft out of high school by the Atlanta Braves. As far as I can tell, he was never really a prospect. Like at all. Going back to 2005, John Sickels never at any point listed him in the Braves Top 20 prospects. He was never even a player of note. There’s a good reason why though.
He was sent to the GCL after being drafted and was bad in 39.2 IP. They promoted him next year where he was bad in the Appy League. Again, they promoted him the next season anyway, and he was bad in full-season A ball. He repeated A ball the next year, got worse, and they promoted to High A for the next season anyway. Anybody want to guess how he did in A+? Yep, still not good.
At 23 in AA, he had a breakthrough of sorts. He was solid, if unspectacular, pitching mostly in relief, with only six starts for his 79.2 IP. The Braves, ever the optimist, promoted him to AAA the next season and made a full-time starter again. He had figured something out at this point because he was good enough in AAA to earn a promotion to the majors. In the majors in 16 starts he was... not good. His AAA numbers improved at 25-years-old the next season, and he was used as part of a package deal for Nate McClouth midseason.
This is probably where Cardinals fans familiarity with Morton comes into play since he played for the Pirates for the next six years, where he morphed into a decent 4th/5th SP option, so long as you weren’t expecting him to actually pitch that many innings. He left the Pirates in 2015, had 4 total starts with the Phillies in 2016, and then rebounded with the Astros and became a better pitcher than he ever was with them.
Anyway sorry for the extended preamble into his backstory, I just find it fascinating that at 23-years-old, he was moved to the bullpen in AA, after a history of being not very good for his professional career, and here he is at 35, looking at a multimillion dollar payday in the MLB. If he so chooses at least. He has apparently expressed a desire to retire.
So yeah the Cardinals are probably not signing Charlie Morton. But I think he’d be an interesting option. The Astros didn’t offer him a qualifying offer, which was considered a surprise. They have since offered him a one-year deal of an unknown amount, but which is surely lower than $17.3 million. So at least in the case of the Astros, it would be fairly easy to top their offer if the Cards wanted. If he were interested in playing beyond 2018 and interested in playing for a team other than the Astros, two relatively big assumptions.
So why sign Morton? Well he’s probably the cheapest pitcher available who is projected for 3.3 WAR by Steamer. I have to note Steamer’s crazy optimistic 165 IP projection considering his history (it would be his most since literally 2011 if you exclude 2018 where he threw 167). But I’ll put it this way. If Morton were to only throw 100 innings with that projection, he’d be worth 2 WAR. The point is - he’s very good when he’s healthy.
The Cardinals back of the rotation has a lot of questions marks, and sure it may seem to be a bad idea to throw another question mark in the mix. The Cardinals have four pitchers who are pretty solid locks to start the year in the rotation next year: Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and Michael Wacha. The fifth spot is between Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber, John Gant, and Daniel Poncedeleon. Alex Reyes will factor into the equation at some point, but I don’t expect him to be an option to start the year. That’s a long-winded way of saying Morton in the fifth spot sounds better than any of the other options, plus the Cardinals seem well suited to a potential injury from him anyway. Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera could emerge as options too.
Would I rather the Cardinals get a better, more reliable pitcher? Sure. But if the Cardinals were to use that money or resources for a position player, Morton would be a good alternative option to improve the rotation. Given his age and injury history, I really don’t expect his price to be very high and he seems interested in retiring so I don’t think he wants a longer deal anyway. A one-year offer from the Astros is on the table. If I may be so bold as to draw the ire of Astros fans, the Astros are kind of cheapskates for being such a rich team so I really don’t think the AAV on Morton’s one-year offer is high at all.
All jokes aside - well that wasn’t really a joke, I really do think he’s being lowballed - I need to come up with an offer for Morton. Again, I’m assuming his market is not crazy because of the factors I’ve mentioned. I’ll give him the 2 WAR for 100 innings value for 2018 and then decrease 0.5 for the next season to give him 3.5 WAR for the next two years. At a $9.5 million per WAR valuation, that would be roughly a 2 year, $33.5 million deal. Would you take that as an alternative option to Greinke, Corbin, and Keuchel?