ATLANTA — The Braves had to make decisions on five players with contract options before a 5 p.m. Monday deadline, and the only one whose option they picked up belonged to the oldest, most accomplished and most expensive of the group, a $20 million team option for starting pitcher Charlie Morton.
The team declined options on left fielder Eddie Rosario ($9 million) and relievers Collin McHugh ($6 million) and Kirby Yates ($5.75 million) one day after declining a $7 million mutual option on reliever Brad Hand. There were buyouts of $1 million for McHugh and $1.25 million for Yates, none for the others.
Morton will turn an ancient (by baseball standards) 40 next week but posted a 3.64 ERA with 183 strikeouts in 163 1/3 innings in 2023. He also maintains some of the highest average spin rates in baseball and one of the most effective curveballs. Morton has a 3.77 ERA with 604 strikeouts in 521 innings during three seasons with Atlanta, including a pair of 14-win seasons.
He worked under one-year contracts each season with the Braves, earning $15 million in 2020 after coming from Tampa Bay as a free agent and making $20 million each of the past two seasons. Morton considered retiring after each of the past two seasons but his sustained performance and the Braves’ desire to have him back helped persuade him to keep competing.
#Braves still need to add one top-three starter in my opinion. Can’t rely on current group given past health (and age) with what they’ve got, and to not upgrade would be severely panned if another situation happened like past two years in the weeks leading up to postseason. https://t.co/KKDeJ0ti7o
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienATL) November 6, 2023
The Braves discussed it plenty before deciding that what the affable and diligent Morton brings in performance and leadership made him worth $20 million for 2024, especially in a pitching market lacking many suitable free agents within a similar price range. Those prices figure to be inflated by the number of teams needing starting pitching, the familiar supply-and-demand dynamic of free agency.
Morton missed the NL Division Series with a ligament injury in the index finger of his pitching hand — he hurt it in his final regular-season start — and the veteran didn’t know whether he could’ve pitched in the NLCS even if the Braves had advanced because the injury might’ve required several weeks to heal properly.
It’s healed steadily and won’t require surgery, so Morton should be able to have a normal throwing program later this winter and be ready for spring training.
In their rotation, the Braves return MLB strikeout leader Spencer Strider and Morton along with ace Max Fried — in his final season before free agency — and Bryce Elder, who faded badly in the second half of his first full MLB season. But with Kyle Wright out for the entire 2024 season following October shoulder surgery, the Braves probably need to add another proven starter, preferably a top-half-of-the-rotation type.
The organization has never believed in building its team, and especially its rotation, through free agency. The Braves say it’s inefficient and that the bigger deals are fraught with long-term risk, and they’re not wrong. So the Braves aren’t expected to get into expected bidding wars for the likes of top free-agent starters Blake Snell, Aaron Nola and Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
But just below that tier of free-agent starters, there could be an affordable option in Sonny Gray, an AL Cy Young finalist who is coming off a stellar season (2.79 ERA, 183 strikeouts in 184 innings) with the Minnesota Twins. He might be within the average-annual-value and length-of-contract range acceptable to the Braves given his age (34 on Wednesday) and his checkered injury history in some recent seasons.
The Braves might also try to fortify the rotation via trade, their usual means of adding top talent not developed within their organization. While their farm system is rated in the lower tier due to a lack of depth and shortage of top-100 prospects, they have plenty of rising pitching prospects and could use one or two as trade chips if they were to pursue someone like the Milwaukee Brewers’ Corbin Burnes. The 2021 Cy Young Award winner is entering his final season before free agency and is likely to be too expensive for the Brewers to re-sign.
Durability should weigh heavily in any Braves pursuit of pitching. Because in each of the past two seasons, their pitching depth has been a major issue in the postseason due to illness or injuries to Fried and Strider in 2022 and Morton in 2023, along with the Wright injury that forced MLB’s only 20-game winner in 2022 to miss most of the 2023 season.
Elder, the Triple-A Gwinnett Opening Day starter who was quickly promoted to Atlanta, had a stirring first half in which he had a 2.45 ERA and .640 opponents’ OPS in 17 starts to earn a spot on the NL All-Star team. But the young right-hander, who relies on location and movement to offset below-average velocity, had a 5.75 ERA and .796 opponents’ OPS in his last 14 starts for the Braves.
He didn’t make it out of the third inning of his NLDS start, a Game 3 loss in which Elder was charged with six runs including two homers.
Whither left field?
With Rosario’s option declined and his left-field platoon partner Kevin Pillar a free agent, the Braves will have to find either a full-time replacement or multiple options to use in a straight platoon or play-the-hot-hand arrangement.
The in-house options are scarce unless the Braves decide to move infielder Vaughn Grissom to the outfield, where he’s yet to play an inning but might have the athleticism to be serviceable defensively if the switch were made before spring training. Grissom, blocked at all infield positions with the Braves, could also be used as a trade chip in a deal for a pitcher or outfielder.
Among free-agent options who don’t figure to command budget-busting contracts are Tommy Pham, who could add an edge that some around the team say was lacking this year, and former Braves Adam Duvall and Jason Heyward, who had a bounce-back season with the Dodgers, batting .269 with 15 homers and an .813 OPS in 377 plate appearances as part of a lefty-righty platoon.
Rosario, 32, was a 2021 postseason hero for Atlanta who missed much of the following season after April laser eye surgery. He was extremely streaky in 2023 but carried the offense for several weeks and was a surprising Gold Glove finalist after being panned often for shaky defense in recent seasons.
Rosario is 1-for-21 in his past 10 postseason games, after his remarkable stretch in the first 14 games of the 2021 postseason when he hit .426 with seven extra-base hits, 11 RBIs and an 1.160 OPS for the Braves en route to the World Series championship.
Rosario hit .560 with 14 hits including three homers and nine RBIs in six games of the 2021 NLCS against the Dodgers to earn series MVP honors and a spot in Braves lore, one that fans of the team won’t soon forget despite his modest production in the two seasons since.
(Photo of Charlie Morton: Ron Chenoy/USA Today)