2019 Fantasy Baseball: Charlie Morton to the Tampa Bay Rays
Free agent Charlie Morton signs a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays worth $30 million. What are the Rays doing signing a 35-year-old starting pitcher when they don’t use starting pitchers? Good question. The truth is, this could be a very savvy signing which helps push the Rays towards the playoffs and could have solid fantasy value.
Right now, Morton is going as the 42nd pitcher on live NFBC drafts (through 76 drafts) with an overall ADP of 116th, which translates to around the 9th – 11th round depending on league size. Coming off a career year where he posted a 3.13 ERA and topped 200 K’s for the first time, you might think Morton would be nearer the top-20 pitcher drafted mark. His 167 IP was the fewest among all pitchers with 200+ strikeouts. His 10.83 K/9 rate was eight best among qualified starters and his 28.9 K% was good for ninth. There’s been lots of talk and great pieces written on how the Astros have managed to get the best out of pitchers with their analytic department and use of spin rates but it’s hard to imagine the Rays won’t be able to do the same sort of thing with how they use pitchers and metrics. Plus, it’s not like Morton will just forget what he learned in Houston.
He has moved to a team with a lesser offense, but it’s not like he’s gone to the Orioles. The Rays offense is pretty good, to the point where every one of their likely starting hitters I could make an easy case for owning on your fantasy team. There are, however, lots of little concerns which are probably stopping Morton moving up to that second tier of starters in drafts.
Firstly, as mentioned he’s moving to a lesser offensive team, but the bigger impact is the tougher division he’s now in. Below are the total runs scored by each divisional opponent of the Astros and the Rays in 2018;
|AL West Opponent||Runs Scored 2018||AL East Opponent||Runs Scored 2018|
Across the 76 games divisional games, Morton will be hoping to face the Orioles more than anyone else. The ballparks are a factor in this with the Mariners and Athletics boasting two of the best pitchers’ parks while the Yankees and Red Sox have two of the best hitters’ parks. This might only be impactful for a handful of games, but it’s the first little concern.
Secondly, Morton’s ERA of 3.13 was somewhat flukey as his FIP for the year was 3.59 to go with a career low BABIP of .283 (career BABIP is .307). They both suggest his ERA should’ve been nearer his 2017 number of 3.62, which is still good, just not 3.13 good.
Thirdly, is Morton’s batted ball numbers seemingly in decline. His groundball rates are on the way down; 2016 62.8%, 2017 51.8% and 2018 47.4%. Whilst his improved strikeout numbers will offset that, his career GB% is 54.1% and his flyball rate is on the rise; 2016 16.3%, 2017 29% and 2018 30.3%. A flyball rate of 30% in the Bronx and Fenway is a recipe for disaster over a few games. Then adding to the combo of decreased groundballs and increased flyballs is the increasing hard-hit rate. Last three years comparison again raises a little concern; 2016 20.5%, 2017 26.9% and 2018 29.8%. Add the three together and it’s hard to see where another 3.13 ERA is going to come from.
Fourthly, and finally, is Morton’s health. His 167 innings pitched are the most he’s had since 2011 which coincidentally is the last time he went a year without going on the DL for any period. Last year, it was only 11 days but it was due to shoulder soreness late in August which raises the issue of how durable Morton can be in his age 35 season.
All in all, there’s four minor concerns which should temper expectations of a repeat of 2018 for Morton. I’m not suggesting he’ll fall into a 4.50 ERA pitcher with 120 K’s, but I expect 2019 to be much more similar to his 2017 3.62 ERA and 163 K’s from around 150 innings pitched. He’ll still be drafted around the SP3/4 mark in mixed leagues and an SP2/3 in AL-only leagues which I’d be comfortable with. If you don’t draft an ace and go for a combo of SP2’s and SP3’s, I’d be happy with Morton being one of those in the SP3 category. Just make sure he’s not the second starter you draft.