The Pittsburgh Pirates have locked up one of their rotation stalwarts for the foreseeable future, inking 30-year old right-hander Charlie Morton to a three-year extension worth a reported $21 million. The contract also contains a club option for 2017 worth $9.5 million. Morton was scheduled to be a free agent after the 2014 season, and was projected to make $3.9 million this season by MLBTR. This contract pays him $4 million in 2014, and $8 million each in 2015 and 2016.
Morton had Tommy John surgery in May of 2012, and was out of action until this past June recovering from the surgery. But in 20 starts this year, he threw 116 innings, pitched to a career-best 3.26 ERA, posted a respectable 2.36 strikeout to walk rate, and shined with a 62.9% ground ball rate – the best in baseball for any starter that made at least ten starts. That ground ball rate, combined with an improved Pirates infield defense and an emphasis on shifting, transformed him into one of the National League's more commanding pitchers after he floated along like a boat without a rudder before the surgery.
Signing Morton is especially important for the Pirates considering that Francisco Liriano and Wandy Rodriguez (who admittedly wasn't much of a factor in 2013) will be free agents after this season. Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole are both still in their pre-arbitration years, and prospects Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham are all (obviously) cost-controlled, so guaranteeing Morton $21 million won't really tie up too much payroll for Pittsburgh. Considering what free agent starters are getting on the open market this winter, keeping Morton in the fold at that salary is a solid move from the Pirates.
One thing that may give me pause with Morton – he still struggled against left-handed hitters last year, allowing a .302/.425/.419 line in 230 plate appearances. In an NL Central that contains lefty sluggers like Matt Adams, Jay Bruce, Matt Carpenter, Anthony Rizzo, and Joey Votto, those struggles could prove extremely problematic. But really – this contract is an affordable one, especially if Morton continues to improve in his first full year with his new style of pitching.