ST. PETERSBURG — The signing of Charlie Morton will spark plenty of conversation around the Rays, both about and by the 35-year-old righty. He comes with a reputation as a best-ever type of teammate, tremendous clubhouse leader-by-example and all-star interviewee, all of which will become extremely obvious.
Months before he throws his first pitch, the word count is already piling up:
• Morton showed his humble side when asked about being a mentor to the young Rays pitchers, willing to do whatever to help but not forcing it.
"It's not more about what I hope to be for other guys. I think mainly it's just focusing on being someone that guys can respect and go to if they need to. I'm not looking to be something for somebody more so than making sure I do the right thing. And if that winds up being a positive thing for somebody else, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to be a professional. Trying to be a good teammate," he said.
"I'm not looking to necessarily be in that role (of a mentor). I think you kind of fall into that, depending on the relationships you build and the quality of time you spend with people as opposed to, I'm going to walk into that clubhouse and now I'm the guy, now I'm the older guy, now I'm here so come talk to me. I don't want it to be like that."
• Signing with the Rays was convenient, personally, for Morton, who lives in Bradenton with his wife and four kids. But he said he was also impressed by manager Kevin Cash and other team officials, what he heard of the clubhouse culture and by their little-engine-that-could approach to winning 90 games in the rugged AL East. "The fact they were able to do what they did last year in that division against the big two right there it just adds to the appeal, it adds to the intrigue, it adds to the desire to be part of something special," he said. "I think they're in a spot where they're really close. That desire to not only win, but to be somewhat of an underdog, to be part of a group that is really striving for something that is a little more than just winning, that too (was appealing)."
• Morton said his marked improvement with Houston was born from being "really frustrated" with his performance and "the methodology" of his work at the end of 2015, trying to be a ground ball pitcher when it was no longer effective. Getting healthier and stronger in 2016 with the Phillies helped given the uptick in velocity until he was hurt in late April, and he continued to improve when he joined the Astros and they told him to throw his curve and four-seam fastball more. He also adjusted his attitude, realizing his career was winding down and he needed to enjoy it more, reducing the burden he felt.
• Morton passed his physical Friday, but has had past arm injuries (including 2012 Tommy John surgery) and two hip surgeries. He acknowledged some issues last season, and said he is focused on getting back to full strength. "At the end of the year with the Astros I don't think I was in the best spot," he said. "I had thrown a lot of innings for me the last couple years. I was going through some things a lot of guys go through." The sliding value of his 2021 option, from $15 million to $1 million based on DL days, gives the Rays some relief if he misses a lot of time.
• Morton comes with several nicknames. Uncle Charlie, baseball's term for a curveball. Ground Chuck, for his past proclivity of getting ground balls. And #CFM, the hashtag and T-shirt worthy moniker earned by his strong showing in the 2017 postseason. In its family newspaper version, that's for Charlie Freaking Morton.
• In becoming the first pitcher to win Game 7 of an LCS and a World Series in the same postseason, Morton furthered his stellar reputation in Houston, where he came in as a mediocre starter and became an All-Star. "There are a lot of appropriate things that happen in baseball," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Him getting the last three outs of the World Series and then starting the home opener in 2018 was poetic justice."
Kevin Cash was ninth on Craig Calcaterra's annual nbcsports.com rankings of most handsome managers, up from 15th. Former Rays coaches Rocco Baldelli, now the Minnesota manager, debuted at No. 4; Charlie Montoyo, with Toronto, was 30th. … Fastball-heavy RHP Emilio Pagan can shut down righthanders (.193 average, .573 OPS), but needs help vs. lefties (.280, .943) and a reliable secondary pitch. … In Matthew Hoff's eulogy of dad Jim, the longtime Rays coach who died unexpectedly Dec. 10, he noted the irony of him collapsing during a penance mass since he had would have had so little to go to confession for, maybe rolling through a stop sign or a yellow light. … The Class A Dunedin Blue Jays will play the bulk of their home games at Clearwater's Jack Russell Stadium, former spring of the Phillies, while renovations are made to Dunedin Stadium. … Taking a few weeks off but the Times crew will have you covered.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.