One of the Pirates’ more contentious moves this winter has been giving Charlie Morton a one year, $2M contract extension despite the fact that he will miss half the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in June. It was a questionable choice at the time, however recent moves by the club is making the decision look a little worse now.
The Pirates wanting to keep him is not surprising, although it is surprising that he remained on the roster instead of being non-tendered and offered a minor league or split contract. While Morton is not especially expensive at $2M, that money could and should have been better spent elsewhere. Instead the Pirates may be spending $2M in 2013 on a pitcher that they do not need; and the Bucs are not a club that can afford to pay more than the league minimum a pitcher that could very easily be ranked eighth on the club’s rotation depth chart by the time he’s healthy.
A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson were projected to be the rotation after Jeff Karstens was designated for assignment (prior to being non-tendered) when Morton was given his new contract. In the minors, Gerrit Cole will be promoted at some point in 2013 – probably before Morton is healthy as well. Furthermore, the club have since agreed to terms with Francisco Liriano, pushing Morton down to eighth on the depth chart.
That of course is not mentioning pitchers like Phil Irwin, Jameson Taillon and even Justin Wilson (if he begins the year in the Triple-A rotation instead of the bullpen), all of whom could be in the Indianapolis rotation by the time that Morton is working his way back to full strength. Furthermore, if a pitcher is needed over the summer, with others not deemed as ready, then the club could trade for an upgrade at the deadline if they were still in contention.
Given his health and the depth in place for next season, keeping Morton really has more to do with the 2014 rotation, as he has that further year of control that Karstens did not have. The problem is that the two year contract given to Liriano nullifies that value. The 2014 rotation will include Liriano and Cole, with Rodriguez’s option likely to be exercised and McDonald, Locke and McPherson battling to join the trio. Furthermore, the latest that Taillon will be ready for the rotation is the summer of 2014; so even at this point it appears that there are seven viable options for the rotation. All of this is without considering the addition of a free agent veteran next winter.
Morton’s name is often mentioned when discussing the Joel Hanrahan trade, as his salary was partly responsible for the club needing to move the closer. While Hanrahan’s likely salary would still have pushed the club over the $70M threshold, so Morton’s contract is not completely responsible for the club having to move the closer; the Hanrahan trade was still a solid baseball move that should have been done earlier. The main reason why is that the club should only be spending on a closer is if there are no issues that need to be addressed on the rest of the roster, which cannot be said about the Pirates at this time.
Nonetheless, the main effect that Morton’s salary could now have is that it may limit what the club can do at the deadline. Again, $2M is not a huge amount, but it may be the difference between the club making or not making an addition at the deadline or even the level of prospect surrendered in a trade.
The front office may not have anticipated the possibility of signing a starting pitcher to a two-year deal when they agreed to a new deal with Charlie Morton, yet a review of internal options for this season and next should have highlighted that committing to the righty at that point was an unnecessary expenditure. The Hanrahan trade highlighted this unnecessary spending again; however it’s the two-year deal given to Liriano that should make the club’s decision regarding Morton much more questionable.