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Charlie Morton’s salary was high for Rays, but so is the cost of leaving

Pitcher agrees to a one-year, $15 million deal with Braves after going 18-8 with a 3.33 ERA during two-year stint in Tampa Bay.
Charlie Morton is walking away from Tampa Bay after agreeing to a one-year $15 million deal with the Braves, which is the exact figure the Rays declined to exercise on a 2021 contract option.
Charlie Morton is walking away from Tampa Bay after agreeing to a one-year $15 million deal with the Braves, which is the exact figure the Rays declined to exercise on a 2021 contract option. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 24, 2020|Updated Nov. 24, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Charlie Morton is officially gone now, and the Rays are a less imposing team this morning.

That isn’t a surprise and, given baseball’s uncertain economic picture during the pandemic, it’s also not a regret for Tampa Bay’s front office. And yet that doesn’t mean his departure won’t be felt by Tampa Bay on the field, in the clubhouse and the community, too.

Morton agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal with the Braves on Tuesday, which is exactly what he would have made in Tampa Bay had the Rays exercised a contract option last month.

“He was a leading force in the most successful two-year stretch this franchise has ever had,” general manager Erik Neander said.

“A lot of that was what he accomplished on the field, but when one of your best players — and the undisputed most-accomplished player on your roster — is also the guy who is mopping up after celebrations, setting that type of example and demonstrating that type of humility and care and thoughtfulness for the people around him, it speaks to what a lasting impact Charlie Morton will have on our group.”

The Rays knew they were taking a risk by declining Morton’s option after the World Series, but they were hopeful he would agree to return to Tampa Bay on a lesser salary, given his oft-stated preference to remain near his Bradenton home.

Tampa Bay had already given Morton one of the richest free-agent deals in franchise history with a two-year, $30 million contract when he left Houston after the 2018 playoffs, but the economic landscape changed during the pandemic.

While every team had to live with empty stadiums during the 2020 regular season, the Rays also lost all of their MLB revenue-sharing money, which is a large chunk of their operating capital.

“Every organization has different stresses and challenges, and we have our own,” Neander said. “That’s always something we need to be very mindful of and, this winter, in the middle of the pandemic and the economic impact that it had, is no different.”

With that in mind, it appears the Rays will also be open to trade offers when it comes to Blake Snell.

Snell has three years and $39 million remaining on his contract, which is a bargain for a former Cy Young Award winner but still a hefty salary for a team with revenue issues. The Rays are not in a hurry to move Snell’s contract but would probably consider any potential deal that gives them financial flexibility without taking a step back competitively in 2021.

Snell and Kevin Kiermaier (who is due to make $11.5 million next season) are the Rays’ most expensive players at the moment. Given Tampa Bay’s stock of outfielders, Kiermaier might be easier to replace, but Snell has a higher trade value.

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The immediate concern now is replacing Morton’s innings in the rotation. The Rays would normally be in decent shape, but Yonny Chirinos, Brendan McKay and Jalen Beeks will miss most, if not all, of 2021 after recent surgeries.

The free-agent market for pitchers also has been fairly high despite warnings of economic woes, with the Braves committing $36 million to a pair of 30-something pitchers (Morton and Drew Smyly) who combined to throw 64.1 innings with a 4.20 ERA and a 2-3 record in 2020.

Still, Morton will be hard to replace in Tampa Bay. It’s not just the 2019 All-Star appearance or the 5-1 record with a 2.10 ERA over the past two postseasons but also his perspective and calming influence in a clubhouse that is still young.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Tampa Bay’s rotation was set up for Morton to pitch a potential Game 7 in the World Series last month. As it turns out, that Game 7 never came for Charlie Morton in Tampa Bay.

And now, neither will opening day in 2021.

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

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