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The price was not right, but don’t say goodbye to Charlie Morton just yet

John Romano | It makes sense for the Rays to offer the pitcher a lesser contract. Let’s hope he agrees.
Let's hope his departure in Game 3 of the World Series against the Dodgers is not the last we see of Charlie Morton in a Tampa Bay uniform.
Let's hope his departure in Game 3 of the World Series against the Dodgers is not the last we see of Charlie Morton in a Tampa Bay uniform. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 30, 2020

The average ballplayer might consider it a slight if a team declined to pick up his contract option after being the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the American League Championships Series.

And the typical fan would probably infer that a team was being cheap by making that type of move.

But, from what we know, Charlie Morton is not your average ballplayer.

And, hopefully by now, Rays followers are not your typical fans.

Yes, Tampa Bay’s decision to take a pass on Morton’s $15 million contract option for 2021 was a financial decision. Of course, it was a financial decision. The Rays have one of the tiniest payrolls in the big leagues and, for them, a $15 million salary is a significant investment.

But there’s a difference between dumping salary and allocating resources. And the Rays have been more efficient at getting value for their dollars than perhaps any team in MLB history. Since 2008, three teams have reached the World Series while being in the bottom-five of team payrolls. Two of those teams were the Rays.

The point being, this front office has a pretty good track record of spending its money responsibly.

And guaranteeing Morton $15 million in 2021 wouldn’t have been a responsible move.

That’s not a knock on Morton. It’s just an accumulation of factors — age, injury history, performance, a reduction in revenues during the pandemic — that makes that type of expenditure a little less than appealing. And Tampa Bay is not the only team making those decisions.

More than two dozen players have had their options turned down in the past few days, including A.J. Happ, Brett Gardner, Corey Kluber, Ryan Braun and Anibel Sanchez. It seems clear teams are tightening their belts after a season without crowds, and they’re also banking on it being a buyer’s market when it comes to lesser-priced alternatives.

Which brings us back to Morton.

He is a free agent now and entitled to sign with whomever he pleases. And if he decides to chase the biggest salary he can find, I wouldn’t blame him one bit.

But that’s not what we have come to expect from Morton, who turns 37 in a couple of weeks. One of the major reasons he signed with the Rays two years ago — aside from the two-year, guaranteed contract for $30 million — is that he has four young children and a home south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

He made it clear that his priority was to spend as much time at home as possible, and having spring training in Port Charlotte and regular-season games at Tropicana Field afford Morton that opportunity.

He has even talked about the possibility of retirement if the Rays did not exercise his option. That doesn’t seem likely right now, but it suggests a lack of interest in pursuing opportunities outside of Tampa Bay.

To me, that says the Rays have a decent chance of re-signing Morton at a lesser salary for 2021. It wouldn’t be surprising if he got a lower base salary with various incentive clauses for the number of starts he makes. That would protect the Rays if Morton has injury problems, and it would reward him if he remains a regular member of the rotation.

It’s entirely possible that another team considers Morton more of a sure bet and hands him a bigger bundle of guaranteed money. He did, after all, make back-to-back All Star teams in 2018-19. But Morton had some shoulder issues in 2020 and ended up with a 4.03 ERA while averaging less than five innings per outing in his 13 combined starts between the regular season and postseason.

“We had to make a decision, yes or no at $15 million, for next year,” said general manager Erik Neander, who spoke to Morton about it Thursday evening. "Beyond that, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to get into too many specifics about next steps in that same conversation.

“If he still wants to play next year and things line up in a way that 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 be as creative and supportive to his considerations and needs and what’s most important to his family.”

If this is the end of the road for Morton in Tampa Bay, that would be a darn shame because, at times, he was an outstanding pitcher and, always, a great teammate. But with their revenue figures, the Rays cannot afford to add sentimentality to their payroll.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.