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Mariners Free Agent Targets: Charlie Morton

The rotation doesn’t need a ton more, just Morton.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2018 MLB season now officially in the books for all 30 teams and impending free agents up for grabs and eligible to be signed by any team as of Friday, Mariners faithful can start compulsively refreshing their Twitter feeds in hopes of seeing the always exhilarating “Sources:” tweets from the accounts of your most trusted MLB insiders.

Our own John Trupin explored the humble beginning to the Mariners 2018-19 offseason Tuesday by identifying the areas the major league club will need to improve over the next five months if they expect to get over the hump next season and finally break the playoff drought that spans the entirety of my Mariners fan-hood. Over the remainder of the week (and likely beyond), our staff is going to identify and explore some players we’d like to hear the M’s connected to as the hot stove fires up, and I’m starting things off with a guy who could single-handedly overhaul the Mariners’ rotation: Charlie Morton.

As John pointed out in Tuesday’s piece, the Mariners received the 17th-most production (or 13th by FanGraphs’ measurements) from their starting pitchers in 2018 which, either way, is somewhere in the middle of the pack. While there’s a variety of other factors at play, if you could simply plug Morton into the Mariners’ rotation in place of say, Felix Hernandez, the resulting 2.8 fWAR swing would have pushed Seattle’s rotation past Atlanta, Washington, and St. Louis and into the top 10 in MLB last season. Heading into the 2019 season, there really only figures to be one spot in the rotation truly up for grabs, and even that spot hinges on whether or not the club wants to give Felix Hernandez Starting Pitcher one last attempt.

Like with any pitcher, Morton comes with his own question marks, not the least of which being his age, as he’ll turn 35 in December. Additionally, while he posted a handful of good-not-great seasons throughout his seven years with the Pittsburgh Pirates—he had five seasons with an fWAR between 1.0-1.8 over that span—the 11-year MLB vet has a fairly limited track record as a firmly above-average arm, checking in as the 25th-most valuable starting in the MLB in both 2017 and 2018, and the 21st most valuable overall during that two year span. There’s a certain degree of volatility that comes along with Morton—his 3.45 BB/9 last season would be higher than any 2018 Mariners starter—but the ability to rack up strikeouts at an elite rate more than makes up for the periodic lapses in control. At 10.83 K/9, he checked in with the 9th-best strikeout rate in baseball among all pitchers who threw at least 160 innings in 2018. The Mariners lack another truly dominant starter to compliment James Paxton, who was fourth on that same list and haven’t had a single starting pitcher log 100 innings in a season with a K/9 north of 10.0 other than Paxton, who has done it in each of the last two seasons. Marco Gonzales’ 2018 breakout went a long way towards legitimizing the Mariners’ rotation, and the emergence of Wade LeBlanc was one of the more pleasant surprises of the season, but adding another option who can overwhelm opposing hitters—particularly of the right-handed variety—would give the team an element they’ve been missing since The King reigned.

In conceptualizing what type of deal a 35-year-old who’s mid-breakout receives, I took to surveying the LL staff, and Tim Cantu suggested a deal similar to that Rich Hill received from the Dodgers in 2017 following his first full (by Rich Hill standards) Rich Hill 2.0 season. At the time, Hill was coming off his age 36 campaign, a season during which he posted a career-best 3.8 fWAR and 3.36 xFIP despite making just 20 starts. While not quite a perfect match, that represents perhaps as close as we’ll get to Morton, who just wrapped up a 3.2 fWAR 3.58 xFIP age 34 season. The key differences between Morton and Hill, who received three years and $48M from the Dodgers, are a) Morton is younger, b) Morton has had two consecutive successful seasons compared to the one that Hill had, and c) Morton has been more durable during his successful run than the glass-boned Hill was during his. One factor that could perhaps affect the market for Morton is that the 2016-17 MLB free agent class (which interestingly included a much less desirable Morton) was almost completely devoid of any starting pitching talent other than Hill, with the next highest paid arms in that class being Ivan Nova, Edinson Volquez, and Jeremy Hellickson, who accepted a qualifying offer.

This year, a case could be made that Morton is only the fourth or fifth most desirable starter in this year’s class, behind Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Nathan Eovaldi, and perhaps Yusei Kikuchi, J.A. Happ and Hyun-Jin Ryu. With Morton being nearly three years the elder to the next-oldest guy on that list (excluding Happ and Kikuchi), he could end up with a deal pretty similar to Hill’s. Particularly if Morton is willing to accept a back-loaded deal that escalates after Seattle has Felix’s contract off the books, bringing him into the fold would put payroll almost exactly where it finished 2018 at, and would allow the club to add an impact bat should ownership be willing to increase the budget slightly in hopes of competing in 2019.