Charlie Morton isn’t your average Atlanta Braves prospect that this series has thus far dug into. He was never a top-100 prospect, nor was he even a Braves top-10 prospect, but he certainly made a name for himself in the MLB.
Now, back to the team that drafted him, let’s look at Morton’s journey from Atlanta to... well, Atlanta.
Charlie Morton, third-round draft pick
The Braves selected Morton in the 2002 MLB Draft out of high school in Connecticut. Athleticism was in his blood. His father Chip was one of the best high school basketball players in Long Island and went on to play at Penn State. His grandfather played baseball in the Philadelphia Athletics organization.
The odds were forever in his favor.
Morton certainly didn’t dazzle in his debut. The 18-year-old went 1-7 with a 4.54 ERA and 1.689 WHIP in the GCL. He quietly climbed the ladder repeating Rome in his 2004 and 2005 season. He was a top-30 prospect for the Braves per Baseball America in both of those seasons, but still was a relative unknown.
He began pitching more out of the bullpen and his ERA began to come down and his strikeout rate began to rise. He had a strong 2007 stint in the desert, where he earned Arizona Fall League Rising Stars honors. He made five starts in six appearances struck out 20 in 21 innings and posted a 1.10 WHIP. Of course when you succeed in the AFL, small sample size or not, people notice.
That momentum carried into the 2008 season. Morton, back in the rotation for Richmond in Triple-A, went 5-2 over 12 starts, posting a 2.05 ERA and a career-best 0.99 WHIP while striking out 72 in 79 innings. His fastball was up to the mid-90s and his curveball began to look like it could get batters out.
The Braves thought so as well. Morton made his big league debut on June 14 against the 41-27 Los Angeles Angels. He pitched six strong innings on the road, allowing three runs, striking out four and walking just one in picking up his first MLB win.
It seemed like great things were on the horizon.
Charlie Morton’s wild MLB ride begins
As it turned out, we had to pump the brakes. Morton’s 2008 season did not end up as it started. He finished 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and a mere 5.8 strikeouts per nine over 15 big-league starts.
The following season, along with Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke, Morton was shipped to the Pirates for Nate McLouth (more on that in a bit).
Morton became a mainstay in the Pirates rotation for the next seven years, teasing fans with strong streaks, but overall, a rather average pitcher. He was traded to the Phillies after the 2015 season and after just one season in the City of Brotherly Love, he signed with the Astros.
Suddenly, Morton was a great pitcher.
Morton dazzled in his first year in the Astros rotation, posting a career-high 14 wins and 10.0 per nine strikeout rate, He played a large factor in Houston’s first-ever World Series title making two appearances in the Fall Classic and going 1-0 while allowing two runs and striking out 11.
The following season, he earned his first of two-straight All Star nods. Morton signed a lucrative deal to become the ace of the young Tampa Bay Rays rotation heading into 2019 and delivered. It was the best season of his career and he even finished third in Cy Young voting.
The 2020 season was one full of injury. Morton elected free agency, and just a day prior to this writing, decided to return back to where it all began.
Charlie Morton: What’s next?
As he did before 2019, Morton joins an exciting rotation of young arms. Unlike his time with the Rays, the freshly-turned 37-year-old won’t be counted on to be the ace.
Morton could slot in at the No. 2 or No. 3 spot of this Braves rotation once Mike Soroka is ready to go. A Soroka-Max Fried-Morton-Ian Anderson-Drew Smyly rotation, on paper, will be one of the best in the National League.
Looking back, the Nate McLouth trade was a complete bust. In his three seasons with the Braves he hit .229 with a .699 OPS. Now to be fair, there was no way to know Morton would have a late-career renaissance, nor anyway to know if the Braves would have held on to Morton for all those years in between his struggles and success. So, in one sense, the Braves didn’t lose much. In another sense, well I’ll quote my good friend when I asked what he thought of the recent Morton signing:
“I don’t like anything that reminds me of Nate McLouth.”
Now, Morton gets the chance to etch himself into my friend’s mind for something positive. He’s craftier now, using his fastball and knuckle-curve to keep batters off bay and can serve as the ideal middle-of-the-rotation arm for the three-time NL East champions.
His ultimate place in Braves history may just be getting started.