It has been only a few days since the Tampa Bay Rays lost Game 6 of the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the team is already getting down to business this offseason. On Friday, GM Erik Neander told reporters, including Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, they have declined their $15 million club option for right-hander Charlie Morton, making him a free agent.
Morton, 37 next month, has hinted at retirement in recent weeks. In fact, he was reportedly on the fence about retiring two years ago, the last time he was a free agent, but he ultimately decided to continue playing because signing with the Rays allowed him to remain close to home. Here's what Morton told reporters, including MLB.com's Juan Toribio, earlier this month:
"[This team] cares about each other every single day," Morton said ahead of Tampa Bay's 2-1 win over the Astros in Game 1 on Sunday. "If a team like that wants me back next year, I would be completely honored and privileged to continue to play. Needless to say, we live 40-something miles away from the Trop. Being out here in the bubble, I've grown to appreciate my situation even more with the Rays."
"It's going to be a decision," Morton said. "Ideally, you want what's best for your family. You want what's best for the organization you play for. If that ends this year, I'm prepared to hang them up."
Neander told Topkin the decision to decline Morton's option was purely about money, and the club plans to be "creative" this winter, and they hope to be able to bring him back. The Rays have run a payroll in the $60 million range the last few seasons and Morton would have eaten up approximately one-quarter of next year's payroll. They'll take him a reduced salary, but not $15 million.
"If he still wants to play next year ... we're going to try everything we can to make that happen," Neander told Toribio.
Shoulder trouble limited Morton to nine starts this regular season, during which he had a 4.74 ERA in 38 innings with a 9.9 K/9 that was very good but below previous seasons (10.7 K/9 from 2017-19). Morton was back to form in the postseason, however, pitching to a 2.70 ERA in four starts and 20 innings. He allowed one earned total in his first three postseason games this year.
The free agent starting pitching market is not especially strong this offseason. Trevor Bauer is the clear No. 1 starter available, with Marcus Stroman and Masahiro Tanaka representing the best of the rest. James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Jake Odorizzi, and Jose Quintana are the third tier. Morton, if he's willing to sign away from home, would be very in demand this winter.
If they're unable to re-sign Morton, the Rays would still have Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow to front their rotation next season, with others like Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming slotting in behind them. Brendan McKay, who missed 2020 with shoulder surgery, could be a rotation option as well depending on his rehab and recovery.
Neader also confirmed the Rays have declined their $4.5 million club option for catcher Mike Zunino, and are open to re-signing him as well. Zunino's power and framing is especially attractive in a backup role, though he is stretched a bit as a full-time starter.