When people think big name free agent pitchers the name Charlie Morton isn’t tossed around much. Maybe it’s time the right-hander started getting more respect?
Position: Starting Pitcher
2018 Stats: 3.13 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 3.62 FIP, 3.68 DRA, 82 DRA-, 3.1 WARP
How He Fits: Morton would fit on the 2019 Chicago Cubs for one reason: he has grown into a great starting pitcher. I use the word great because, simply, that’s exactly what Morton has been the past couple of years. He’s been sneaky about it, and he tends to fly under the radar. Pitching for a loaded Houston Astros rotation also played a role in that secrecy. It’s hard to stand out when you’re pitching alongside the dominant stuff of Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole; the craftiness of Dallas Keuchel; or a guy with an unbelievable curveball like Lance McCullers Jr.
Despite the lack of attention, or maybe because of it, Morton has been better every year since coming back from labrum surgery in 2016. Morton has become the model of continuous improvement. Each outing he looks a little bit better, and that’s pretty hard when right out the gate following the surgery he was pretty darn good. He’s seen an uptick in his four-seam fastball velocity while gaining better control of his sinker. But, the main reason he’s become a pitcher who is great even if most don’t recognize it is his knuckle curveball.
By 2018 Morton was throwing his knuckle curve more often than any other pitch, 30 percent of the time. The reason he has thrown it more and more over the past couple of years: batters struggle mightily against the pitch. We’re talking they struggle to the tune of a Batting Average Against of .142 and a Whiffs per Swing of 46 percent. That is a devastating pitch, and it’s why Morton became as integral to the Astros rotation as any of their more well-known studs.
All of this is written with the understanding that the only way Morton fits on the Cubs is if they switch to a six-man rotation. They could do that, and it would be a smart move that would help every single starting pitcher on the team. It’s also a move that would drastically improve an already great rotation by allowing them to sign someone like Morton. I know it’s a radical idea to most, but it’s a move I wouldn’t mind seeing the Cubs undertake.
Why It Won’t Work: The Cubs aren’t going to a six-man rotation, it’s as simple as that. They already have their five-man rotation set in place. They have six starters for that rotation presently, with more waiting in the wings. In a year where the Cubs ownership has decided to be penny pinchers, per reports, the signing of another free agent starting pitcher isn’t going to be a priority.
There isn’t a statistical reason for not signing Morton. I could understand being concerned with his injury history or erroneously thinking he is due for regression. But, I don’t believe either of those is a legitimate concern at this point in time. For the Cubs, it will all come down to the starting rotation already being filled out and any money they have earmarked for free agency being better spent elsewhere.
Alternatives: Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi are both free agent options that would make sense over Morton, but the Cubs aren’t signing them either. The day the Cubs picked up the option on Cole Hamels they passed on Morton and other free agent starting pitchers. Even if something were to happen with the current five-man rotation the organization still has any of Mike Montgomery, Duane Underwood, Jen-Ho Tseng, Tyler Chatwood, and more who can step in if needed. In this case, the alternatives are the answer, no matter the argument for Morton.
Photo credit Keith Allison, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)