It is an interesting time for sports right now, whether it is the bonanza of the NBA offseason or pondering of the next NHL season, the fracas of the NFL or the wild start to college basketball (yeah, my Big East-Big 12 article aged well). In this time of stillness or insanity, however you want to describe it, there is the MLB offseason. From the presentation of individual awards to the Hall of Fame ballot, this offseason has been, to describe in just one word, interesting.
So far, the most notable transaction in the market has been 37-year-old Charlie Morton, a Connecticut high school alum, signing with the Atlanta Braves for one year and $15 million in a loaded free agent class that includes NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer and DJ LeMahieu amongst others. His acquisition brings a veteran presence to a Braves’ starting rotation that already brought in Drew Smyly, but more importantly, gives Atlanta their best one since the Big Three in the 90s that dominated the Major Leagues. Let us investigate Atlanta’s rotation and why we can compare then and now.
Charlie Morton was initially drafted by the Braves in 2002 out of high school. After six years in the minor leagues, Morton debuted in June of 2008 against the Los Angeles Angels, made the start, and got the win after going six innings. Morton spent the rest of the season in the majors, filling in a spot in the rotation as Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz went down with injuries, so Morton has both veteran and ace experience in Atlanta. That ended up being his only season on the Braves before he was shipped off to Pittsburgh for Nate McClouth. In seven years in Pittsburgh (2009-2015), he was decent, going 41-62 with a 4.39 ERA, 563 strikeouts, and 288 walks. He never made the All-Star Game nor got a Cy Young vote and was placed in a rotation that also featured Gerrit Cole and Edinson Volquez, amongst others.
After Pittsburgh, Morton went to Philadelphia before going to Houston and not only becoming a pivotal member of the rotation but also winning and closing out Game 7 of the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018, Morton finally eclipsed 200 strikeouts and was an All-Star for the first time in his career. After a stellar 15-3 season, Morton packed his bags and headed to Tampa Bay on a two-year deal for $30 million. 2019 was a prime year for Morton, as he went 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA, 240 strikeouts, and a third-place finish in AL Cy Young voting behind former teammates Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, each of whom had 300 or more strikeouts. But even in Tampa, Morton was part of a strong rotation, as shown in the 2020 postseason. Morton was the number three pitcher behind former Pirate Tyler Glasnow and 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. After losing the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Morton considered his options and ultimately became a free agent. Now a Brave, Morton returns to the team that drafted him to be a fourth option in the Braves rotation? Fourth, really? Here is why.
The reason is not because Charlie Morton went 2-2 with 42 strikeouts, it is because Atlanta already has a deep rotation, and his presence has the potential to send the Braves to their first World Series since 1999. First, there is 23-year-old Canadian Mike Soroka, who’s 2020 season was cut short by an achilles injury while pitching against the Mets. He had a solid 2019, an All-Star with a 13-4 record and 2.68 ERA, the 2019 All-MLB Second Team pitcher dominated hitters that year and when he returns, he will be stronger than ever and become the ace he was prior to his injury. He might not even be the ace because of a certain southpaw. That lefty, not LOOGY (Left Only One Out Guy), is Max Fried, a 26-year-old California Native that reigned supreme in Soroka’s absence. After an interesting 173-strikeout 2019 with a 17-6 record, Fried went undefeated at 7-0 in 2020, striking out 50, but finishing fifth in NL Cy Young voting as well as garnering MVP votes and a Gold Glove in the process. Fried outright fried his opponents and only lost once against the Dodgers.
Then, of course, there is the rookie Ian Anderson. Anderson debuted against the Yankees in 2020 and the 22-year-old New York native dominated the Bronx Bombers over six innings, earning the win. Anderson was solid, 41 strikeouts in just six starts, with a 3-2 record and a 1.95 ERA. Ian Anderson then proceeded to not surrender a run in the postseason until Game 7 of the NLCS. I should also mention that without Soroka, the Braves had four shutouts in their first five games, and sweeps against the Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins. Should the entire rotation be healthy, Morton is going to fit in as the number four pitcher with Smyly or another veteran taking the fifth spot. This rotation looks so solid, I wanted to dabble on how this might be the greatest rotation in a few decades.
Yes, this is easily the greatest rotation since the Braves’ big three of the 90s. During their time together from 1993-2002, the trio of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, all Hall of Famers, took home a World Series ring and five Cy Young Awards (three in a row from Maddux, one each from Smoltz and Glavine). I feel as though there is a lot to compare between these three and the current rotation as well as a solid fourth option. Mike Soroka would compare to Greg Maddux because both are the middlemen in the rotation in terms of age and can strikeout sluggers in a multitude of ways. Whether it is with a fastball or a curveball, name a pitch they both have, and they can strike the hitter out. Max Fried compares to Tom Glavine because they are both the oldest and southpaws that rack up wins in incredible fashion as well as have solid control of their arsenal of pitches that leave hitters with no idea of what the next pitch is.
That leaves Ian Anderson being compared to John Smoltz because their youth led them to dominate hitters effectively with a plethora of options. That might not mean Ian Anderson will close out games like John Smoltz did (yes, he was a closer for a couple seasons), but that could mean that Anderson has a strong chance of just being consistent. Charlie Morton would be the fourth option here and be compared to Steve Avery, a southpaw that might have been a top two starter anywhere else, but instead became a decent depth filler in the rotation. Again, these comparisons are early in the careers of everyone but Morton, however, I feel as though these comparisons can pan out to success and Cy Young Awards.
Charlie Morton likes this young core so much that Morton is “looking forward to being part of a group that looks forward to coming to the park every day just to hang out and be excited to play together.” The talent is real, and the Braves have enough pitching to take home the NL East, but they also have strong hitting. Reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman was just 19 years old and a prospect when he ran across Morton. Studs such as Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson were still in school. Charlie Morton’s veteran presence is going to be huge for the already loaded Braves rotation, and his flexibility at any spot in the rotation from ace with the Rays to third or fourth with the Astros means that Morton could fit anywhere in the rotation of young talents. I really like the sustained success of the Braves, and even if they do not win the division for 15 consecutive seasons, they will at least get their fourth straight division title in 2021, largely in part to the offense and the additions on defense.