ST. PETERSBURG — With Tuesday’s World Series exit still gnawing at them, the Rays shifted abruptly to addressing 2021, saying no thanks — and potentially goodbye — to veteran starter Charlie Morton and catcher Mike Zunino.
In declining their options, the Rays made clear — given significant pandemic-driven revenue losses this season and massive financial uncertainty next season — they didn’t view Morton worthy of a $15 million salary and Zunino of $4.5 million, and probably considered them relatively easy calls.
General manager Erik Neander said they will pursue bringing both back under different terms, with plans to negotiate after they become free agents Monday in what is expected to be a flooded market, as other teams are making similar decisions on options.
“With both of them, the door is staying open, we’re going to continue talking,” Neander said Friday during a season wrap-up Zoom call. “We’re going to go down that path. Those were decisions we have to make right now.”
That both enjoyed being with the Rays and playing near their offseason homes could facilitate a return; the opportunity to get more money elsewhere could negate that.
Based on an initial perception of the market, Zunino, who generated some initial interest Friday, might be more likely to re-sign. Morton — assuming the soon-to-be 37-year-old wants to keep pitching, as seems likely — might get more lucrative offers. The Braves, Yankees and Nationals are among teams that could make appealing pitches.
“Their desire was to be in Tampa Bay, and I think that will still remain something of a viable option to them, but at this point they’re free agents, and they owe it to themselves to see what’s out there,” said B.B. Abbott, who with Andrew Lowenthal at Tampa-based Jet Sports Management represent both players.
“It’s no disrespect to the team. The team understands that their first choice was to be in Tampa, and it probably still is their first choice. But sometimes the economics don’t line up. If that happens, I know both parties will tip their hats and wish each other luck. I don’t think anything’s changed just because the team didn’t pick up their option.”
There are other complicating factors in both situations.
The Rays on Friday also parted ways with their two backup catchers, as Michael Perez was claimed off waivers by the Pirates and Kevan Smith was to become a free agent when he cleared waivers.
Those moves, the product of the Rays needing to clear space to reinstate players from the 45-day injured list, left prospect Ronaldo Hernandez, who is not considered major-league ready, as the only catcher on the 40-man roster. That could increase the need to re-sign Zunino, who is from Cape Coral and lives in Gainesville, and only bring in one new catcher.
Though Zunino, 29, didn’t hit much — .147 with four homers, 10 RBIs and a .598 OPS in 28 regular-season games around a monthlong oblique strain; .170-4-8-.593 in 19 postseason games — the Rays put great value on his defense, leadership and ability to handle their diverse pitching staff. He made the prorated equivalent of $4.5 million in 2020, roughly $1.67 million.
“The intangible benefits of him for the staff and the work he did behind the plate were a huge reason for our success,” Neander said.
Morton has addressed his uncertain future several times recently, saying it was an easy call to return if his option was picked up as he greatly enjoyed being in the Rays organization and living year-round in his Bradenton home with his wife and four kids. Also, the right-hander was more likely to consider retirement if he didn’t get offers that presented appealing lifestyle options. But at another time, he indicated that he didn’t want the pandemic-altered season to be his last.
“Charlie has been very open about the uncertainty in his future and where he’s at,” Neander said. “Frankly, we felt it best to let him catch his breath, let him process, let him make some decisions with his family and to have those conversations. To give this a little bit more time to let this play out and see where things go.”
Neander said he had “a great conversation” Thursday with Morton as he was making dinner for the family, but he didn’t press him on what it would take to get him back. Given Morton’s age, that he missed time this season with shoulder inflammation and that the jump back to a full-season workload will be challenging for many, an incentive-laden offer with a lower base salary would seem logical.
“If there’s a motivation, if he still wants to play next year, and things line up in a way where it could be here, and he sees it that way, we’re going to try to do everything we can to make that happen and to be as creative and supportive to his considerations and needs and what’s most important to him and his family as we can be,” Neander said.
The budget-conscious Rays uncharacteristically extended themselves in signing Morton to a two-year, $30 million deal going into 2019, and the option was structured in a way to protect them if he missed extensive time due to injury, with lower salaries based on total injured list days. He returned this season one day ahead, based on the adjusted standards for the 60-game schedule, to keep the option from being reduced to $10 million.