How Friday was like a box of Now and Laters for Rays

Rays complete deal with veteran Charlie Morton to anchor staff, swap 3 pitchers for a high draft pick and 2 other arms
Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton follows through on a pitch to the Orioles in the third inning on  Sept. 30, 2018, in Baltimore. [Associated Press]
Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton follows through on a pitch to the Orioles in the third inning on Sept. 30, 2018, in Baltimore. [Associated Press]
Published December 21 2018

ST. PETERSBURG – Part of Friday was about the present for the Rays, finalizing the two-year deal with veteran starter Charlie Morton that pays him franchise record $15 million salaries and comes with hefty expectations for his impact on their staff.

And part was about the future, swapping three minor-league pitchers who didn't figure to contribute much in the majors this season for the chance to add a potentially elite prospect later by acquiring the 38th pick in the draft, plus two other pitchers who could help in different ways.

RELATED: 5 things to know about Charlie Morton, including #CFM

What the Rays gave up in the three-team deal with Oakland and Texas seemed like a lot: Brock Burke, their 2018 minor-league pitcher of the year for his work as the Class A and Double-A level; another lefty also just added to the 40-man roster, reliever Kyle Bird, who was projected to reach the majors sometime in 2019; and righty Yoel Espinal.

But the Rays saw it as the price of having built such a deep and rich farm system and the requisite need to manage, and thus churn, spots on the 40-man roster, using spare talent as trade inventory to keep the cycle going.

Besides the draft pick from Oakland, which may have been the driving force, they got Emilio Pagan (puh-GON), a reliever from the A's who can dominate right on right, work multiple innings and has minor-league options, and Rollie Lacy, an intriguing sinkerball starter prospect from the Rangers (who got him from the Cubs in the Cole Hamels trade), and is likely headed to Double-A. (The headline to the deal was infielder Jurickson Profar going from Texas to Oakland.)

"We're really pleased with our system and the way things are set up over the longer term,'' general manager Erik Neander said. "Where our pitching was at on our major-league team, what we have coming back off rehabs and just kind of maneuvering our talent around in a little bit different way in that this will help better balance us as we move forward. … Just felt the pieces we got back, how we feel about them and how they slot into our system plus the pick itself just made more sense for us right now.''

There are (at least) two major gambles here.

One is that Burke, who drew some comparisons to now Cy Young award winner Blake Snell as a late bloomer coming through their system, ends up being a hit. The hard-thrower looked good this season, going 9-6, 3.08 overall with 158 strikeouts between Class A and Double-A. "A pitcher for us that was on the come,'' Neander acknowledged.

The other is that they don't miss on the draft pick. Only competitive balance round picks can be traded, and the chance to get one and use it on near-first-round talent, and that won't have to be added to the roster for years, was key. The Rays will now have four of the top 61 picks, though the first is 22nd.

Pagan, 27, pitched in 2017 with the Mariners and last season with the A's, posting a 3-1, 4.35 mark over 55 games, allowing 55 hits (including 13 homers) and 19 walks over 62 innings while striking out 60. How much he helps, whether he's a middle reliever or an opener vs. righty-heavy teams, if he ends up on the Durham shuttle all remains to be seen.

There is no uncertainty about the role the Rays expect Morton to play, paying the 35-year-old righthander the highest salary in franchise history, plus a 2021 option for between $1 million and $15 million based on DL time, to be what Neander called an "anchor" on their staff.

And, yes, as a traditional starter, joining Snell and Tyler Glasnow and likely two openers in a five-game rotation.

"Certainly over the last two years especially with the innings he provided Houston you're talking about somebody that has top of the line stuff and top of the line results,'' Neander said. "On the field that's really attractive to us, but at least as much as that is the character of the person. … As a teammate  and as someone that will certainly be a more senior member of our team is certainly going to carry a lot of influence with our young group and the example he sets and offering that to our younger crowd is certainly appealing as well.''

Morton said he truly couldn't be happier to be  with the Rays, combining the opportunity to be close to his Bradenton home and his wife and four kids; to join a young, talented, exciting and underdog-type team; and to get a competitive contract.

"It seemed like something that was too good to be true,'' Morton said. "Everything about the situation, it seemed perfect. … I'm anxious to get going.''

Talks with manager Kevin Cash, pitching coach Kyle Snyder and team officials helped sway him, and the financial commitment sealed it.

"It really was a pretty easy decision,'' Morton said. "The Rays seemed to be really aggressive in trying to work something out.''

Morton brings a resume of success and experience. After posting pedestrian numbers his first nine big-league seasons, he starred with the Astros, going 29-10, 3.36 ERA, mixing fastball that improve to 96 mph fastball with a high-spin curveball.

Morton said the late-age improvement was a combo of adjusting his repertoire from relying on his sinker, getting stronger, being healthy, moving to the American League, etc. "It was kind of a perfect storm,'' he said.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch said he is the total package.

"He's tremendous on and off the field—in the clubhouse, around the team. He's as genuine a person as I've been around in the game,'' Hinch said. "Everyone has a Charlie Morton story.  They all center around him being selfless and all about others. I've been proud to be his manager.''

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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