Charlie Morton only made parts of four starts for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016, but he started to show the form that has made him a star with the Houston Astros. Morton suffered a season-ending hamstring tear on April 23, 2016 against the Milwaukee Brewers. But apparently he had shown so much in his brief time with the Phillies that the coaching staff lobbied to bring him back for a second season.
According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, the Phillies coaching staff gave their input to the front-office in favor of picking up the $9.5 million option that Morton had for 2017, but Matt Klentak's front office ultimately decided to decline it:
The Phillies are much improved. But how much better would they be with Charlie Morton? They had a $9.5 million option on him for 2017, and after polling coaches as to whether they were in favor of keeping him, and the coaches voting to keep him, the Phillies still decided against picking up that option. $9M probably seemed a tad high considering the injury history, but oops.
At the time, I suggested that while the Phillies would likely buy Morton out of his option, it would be wise for them to offer him an incentive-laden contract with a base salary around $6 million. Along with a majority of the league, I underestimated how interested the Houston Astros were in Morton, because the Astros ultimately guaranteed him two years, at an average salary of $7 million per season.
Though many were skeptical of the Jeff Lunhow's decision to give Morton - who, as Heyman mentioned, has quite the injury history - a two-year deal, it's proven to be one of the biggest steals in recent history. In his first season with the Astros, Morton went 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA, a 3.46 FIP and a career-high 3.3 fWAR. When another former Phillie, Ken Giles, struggled in the playoffs, it was Morton who came on to close Game 7 of the World Series.
Morton's breakout in 2017 hasn't proven to be a fluke. In fact, Morton may be pitching even better in 2018. The 34-year-old is 7-1 with a 2.84 ERA and a 1.3 fWAR through his first 12 starts of the season. His performance continues to be overlooked since he's in a rotation with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr., but it won't be overlooked by contenders when Morton reaches free-agency again this offseason.
One counter argument that has been made is that the Phillies couldn't have possibly known Morton would see a rather drastic velocity increase upon his arrival to Houston. In 2017, his age-33 season, Morton's fastball average fastball velocity was 96.0 MPH. In 2018, his age-34 season, his average fastball velocity is 97.1 MPH. In 2015, his age-31 season, Morton's average fastball velocity was 92.9 MPH, while pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Prior to 2017, his previous career high had been 94.3 MPH, which came in 2013, his age-29 season.
Morton has seen a pretty incredible velocity spike at a time in his career when many hurlers are starting to lose velocity. But that velocity increase started during his brief time with the Phillies, when his average fastball velocity was 95.4 MPH, a 2.5 MPH increase from the previous season. The league had taken notice then, as Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports later reported that the Phillies were already receiving 'trade inquiries' on Morton prior to his injury. Remember, he got injured in late April.
In hindsight, not picking up Morton's option didn't make a ton of sense. Sure, he had an injury history and he would have cost $9.5 million in 2017. But the Phillies had next-to-no major financial commitments and needed another veteran arm in a young rotation. They were in a position where it would have made sense to take a $9.5 million risk on a pitcher that showed signs of having an early 30s breakout the year before. Instead, the Phillies declined Morton's $9.5 million option, traded for Clay Buchholz and paid him $13.5 million to post a 12.27 ERA in 7.1 innings before tearing his flexor tendon. As Twitter users always like to remind us, hindsight is 20/20, but boy would the Phillies like a mulligan on that one.
One debate not worth having is how much better the 2018 Phillies would be with Morton, however. Klentak traded Jeremy Hellickson, Howie Kendrick and Pat Neshek prior to last summer's non-waiver trade deadline. If Morton, a 33-year-old free-agent-to-be (which he would have been if his 2017 option was exercised) was having a career year, the Phillies, on their way to the sport's third worst record, unquestionably would have traded him to a contender.
It is interesting that this story is just now coming out. Pete Mackanin's staff presided over the Phillies for one more season, one in which the team was alarmingly thin on consistent starting pitchers. Mackanin, of course, is no longer the manager. Though he hasn't been heard from since the conclusion of the 2017 season, Mackanin is currently a special assistant to the general manager. His bench coach, Larry Bowa, is now a senior advisor to the general manager. Both of those titles are purposely vague. Bob McClure, who was the pitching coach under Mackanin, is a senior pitching advisor for the Minnesota Twins.