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  1. Rays

Rays signing RHP Charlie Morton is a big deal in more ways than one

Former Astros teammate Lance McCullers Jr. raves about what a great fit Morton will be for Tampa Bay.
Charlie Morton throwing in the playoffs for the Astros. [AP}
Published Dec. 12, 2018
Updated Dec. 13, 2018

LAS VEGAS — Striking a somewhat surprising two-year, $30 million deal with right-hander Charlie Morton on Wednesday gives the Rays the established starting pitcher they were looking to add to their amorphic rotation.

And more.

Besides the impressive statistics, 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA over the past two seasons in Houston. Beyond the intriguing repertoire of a 96 mph fastball and high-spin curveball, even at age 35. In addition to the resume that includes winning Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and the World Series in 2017.

The Rays are also investing in a tremendous teammate, a wise leader and one heck of a good dude.

RELATED: Five things to know about Charlie Morton

"For me, Charlie has been probably the best teammate and one of the kindest souls I've come across, not only in baseball but in general,'' now former Astros mate Lance McCullers Jr. said Wednesday night. "Talking about a guy who goes out there and competes for his team whether he feels great or is not feeling great. He shows up in the big moment whether you need a big start or big outs, he's always there to get them.

"Just an all-time guy. An all-time husband, father, teammate, friend. Can't say enough about what kind of person he is. And it definitely has translated to the mound and the kind of pitcher he has become over these last couple years.''

Morton was something of a pedestrian starter for the first nine years of his career, posting a 46-71, 4.54 record in 162 games with the Braves, Phillies and primarily Pirates. Then he joined the Astros in 2017, stayed healthy, started throwing his curveball more and better, and became one of their most effective starters.

Morton was something of a bargain for the Astros, making $14 million plus $4 million in incentives for the last two years total. His willingness to take a short-term deal made him more appealing to the Rays, though they're paying for the privilege.

Morton will get a Rays record $15 million for each of the next two seasons, with a team option for 2021 between $1 million and $15 million based on how many days he spends on the disabled list in 2019-20. The deal is pending Morton passing a physical, so Rays officials declined to comment until it becomes official, which might not be until next week as they also have to clear a roster spot.

Morton will join lefty Blake Snell, the AL Cy Young winner, and presumably righty Tyler Glasnow as traditional starters, with the Rays likely, though not definitely, using openers in the other two slots. That seems like a pretty strong top three, and they also have touted prospect Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon on track, thus far, for June-ish returns from Tommy John surgery.

Snell said, via text, he was thrilled by the addition: "I'm extremely excited to have a veteran pitcher on the staff who I can learn from and grow with! Met Charlie once and I'm excited to build the relationship. He's an awesome guy!''

Much of the media speculation and chatter has been about the Rays adding a fearsome bat for this season, a pursuit that is continuing, including Miami's J.T. Realmuto and maybe not as much for Nelson Cruz.

But manager Kevin Cash had been pushing for another starter, which he reminded his bosses of during his Monday interview-room appearance during the winter meetings.

"I think Kevin made his preferences clear in his session (saying he wanted) 'Pitching, pitching and pitching,' " general manager Erik Neander said. "I hope that we can at least check off one of the three and at least get 'pitching,' and we'll work on the next two.

"Whatever can allow us to win by one on a given night is important to us, and if there's opportunities to keep runs off the board rather than put them on, if we feel like that gets us into a stronger position with our team as a whole, we're going to pursue them.''

The Rays are obviously taking some risks, taking advantage of their financial flexibility to pay the highest annual salary in team history. They are betting Morton will stay healthy, as he has had some previous shoulder issues, and can be effective away from the Astros, who have some seemingly intriguing ways of making pitchers better.

But they obviously feel it's worth it, with the added benefit of Morton's experience, including in the postseason. Of note, he's the first player in MLB history to earn wins in Game 7 of an LCS and the World Series in the same season.

"It's going to be a great mix that the Rays have,'' McCullers said. "I wish we would have got him back; I feel like we kind of missed an opportunity there to keep him. He's going to fit in great with those guys. He's going to be able to teach them a lot. … Talk about a guy who pretty much has been through everything. If the playoffs are obviously an aspiration the Rays have, he's a perfect guy to kind of teach those guys how to handle those expectations and how to perform in those environments, because he's done that.''

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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