On Wednesday night, Charlie Morton made his last start of the regular season, and it wasn’t a pretty one. He allowed five runs in just two innings of work, and was one of the reasons the Pirates’ hopes for the NL Central slipped away that night. He left the bases loaded with nobody out in the third inning, and the game went downhill from there. Interestingly enough, I’m sure many fans figured Wednesday night’s game was a long shot to win anyways because Morton was on the hill. And that speaks volumes about how far Morton has fallen over the past couple of seasons.
If the Pirates win or if the Cubs lose on Saturday night, Morton may get one last shot at redemption on Sunday (though it would likely be Jeff Locke, as Morton would only be going on just four days rest), as the Pirates will have clinched home field in the Wild Card game and J.A. Happ would more than likely be removed from that Sunday start. So either he, Locke, or someone else will most likely get a spot start then. But Morton won’t make a start in the postseason barring an injury to Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, or Happ, and he’s probably further down on the depth chart than Jeff Locke at this point. He could be used as a long relief option in a blowout, but even then Clint Hurdle may be weary in using him. Hurdle was willing to yank Morton early into his start against the Cardinals, so his leash can’t get much shorter in the playoff game. For all intents and purposes, Morton’s 2015 season is over. Has his future in Pittsburgh changed course?
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In the offseason following the 2013 season, the Pirates signed Morton to a three-year, $21 million extension. And it was probably warranted at the time. Morton was coming off a season in which he posted a 3.26 ERA and was worth 0.5 wins above replacement. And he followed up that extension by posting a 3.72 ERA and a 0.4 WAR last year. He was a good number four or five starter, and was performing at about what the Pirates expected him to. But this season, after starting the season on the disabled list, Morton posted a 4.81 ERA, was a negative win player, and had been downright awful since he came out of the gate with five good starts. In fact, he allowed at least a run in 16 of his 18 starts since those five great starts, and had allowed at least three runs in 12 of those 18 starts. It’s fair to point to that fateful June 9th start against the Nationals as the beginning of Morton’s downward spiral (for lack of a better word), an outing in which he allowed nine runs in just 2/3 of an inning of work. Morton has regressed tremendously this year, and has brought his future in Pittsburgh into question.
There are many reasons to hope and to think that Morton may be pitching elsewhere next season and beyond. For one, his numbers speak for themselves. He’s fallen off a cliff this season, and even though he had rough starts in the past, he always used to balance those out with electric starts, starts in which he pitched at least six or seven innings and allowed just one or two runs. He had upside, and could show that occasionally. He didn’t do that at all this season.
He’s also set to make $8 million next season, and he’s clearly not worth that kind of money anymore. That contract could be seen as decent if he was putting up a sub-four ERA, or if he could mix in great starts every now and then. But now that contract looks like dead money, and one of the few contracts Neal Huntington may wish he could have back, possibly right next to the Jose Tabata contract. That $8 million could get a decent reclamation project or two this upcoming offseason, or could be put towards a bench bat or a bullpen arm. Essentially, that money might best be used elsewhere.
…after starting the season on the disabled list, Morton posted a 4.81 ERA, was a negative win player, and had been downright awful since he came out of the gate with five good starts. In fact, [Morton] allowed at least one run in 16 of his 18 starts since those five great starts, and had allowed at least three runs in 12 of those 18 starts.
But there are a few concerns with getting rid of Morton, and they’re certainly valid reasons. It would take Huntington eating his pride to send Morton elsewhere or to release him. Releasing him wouldn’t do much expect open up a spot for another pitcher on the roster, as contracts in baseball are fully guaranteed. And trading him would require another team actually wanting to take on Morton and his contract. I could see this happening, especially if the Pirates eat some of his salary, as starting pitching is always desired around baseball. And another team can make an argument for taking him on. He may still have some upside left, and this may just be a down year. But right now a trade looks difficult at best.
It would also put the Pirates in a tough position internally with trying to fill Morton’s spot in the rotation. Behind Cole and Liriano, the number three starter next season on Opening Day would be…Jeff Locke? Yep. That’s not a good sign. Other immediate options would include Vance Worley or Radhames Liz. The Pirates don’t have much starting pitching depth behind their front two to start the 2016 season, so they’ll have to make moves this offseason to remedy that problem. Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and other prospects won’t get their chance with the team until at least the middle of next year, and prospects shouldn’t be relied upon, especially for a contending team.
The Pirates will have an interesting predicament this offseason when it comes to Charlie Morton. If it were up to me, I’d hang on to Morton as the number five starter. But I also want the Pirates to get rid of Locke. I don’t think both Morton and Locke should be in the rotation next season, not if the Pirates still have aspirations of ever catching the Cardinals in the NL Central. Huntington, as he always does, will have a busy offseason after this season ends, and Morton’s name will definitely be a part of that.