Charlie Morton eschewed the opportunity to maximize his earning potential when he signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension with the Pittsburgh Pirates late last year.
The Bucs are fortunate he did, because Morton’s continued efficacy will probably be the difference between a mediocre starting rotation and a very good one in 2014.
We already know that Francisco Liriano will get the Opening Day start and unofficially lead the pitching staff. We also understand that 23-year-old Gerrit Cole could easily grab those reins at some point this year, too, and Wandy Rodriguez is reportedly healthy and ramping up his workload in Bradenton,
Near the bottom of the projected rotation sits free-agent signing Edinson Volquez, who hopes to ride the Pirates’ groundball-heavy approach to a career rejuvenation. Jeff Locke also lurks there, with the idea of rebounding after an up-and-down 2013 that finished with him in the dugout instead of on the mound.
Also, Bucs manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington have spoken highly of 24-year-old right-hander Stolmy Pimentel, whether as a rotation option or a bullpen contributor. Pimentel came over in the Joel Hanrahan-Mark Melancon trade with Boston last offseason, and he may sneak into the Pirates’ 2014 plans more than previously anticipated.
Finally, we have Jeanmar Gomez to fill in the blanks if need be. Gomez, 26, delivered several average-to-good starts early in 2013 as Liriano (broken arm), Cole (still in Triple-A) and Morton (Tommy John surgery) worked toward their season debuts.
Much like Cole, Morton didn’t get into the Pirates’ 2013 rotation until June, but he quickly got up to speed. In fact, behind Liriano, the 30-year-old Morton was the Bucs’ most reliable starter as they pushed for the playoffs in the season’s final two months.
Outside of a pair of rough outings against the Cardinals, Morton allowed three runs or fewer in 10 starts spanning August and September. In four of those he allowed two and in four others he limited opponents to fewer than two. To cap off his strong closing stretch, he allowed just two runs to powerful St. Louis in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
There’s quite a difference between having three trustworthy starters and possessing four. If a team has a better-than-average chance to win four out of every five games, that can provide the boost from a .500 season and a run to the postseason.
Morton can help the Pirates make up that margin. His dominant two-seam fastball makes him a grounder-creating machine (62.9 percent rate last season), and the Bucs have the positional advantage and sure-handed defenders to take advantage of that.
It sounds a bit odd to say that Morton, who’s endured two major injuries in his five-year Pirates career and had to completely revamp his delivery before becoming an above-average MLB starter, could be a true difference-maker.
That is certainly the case, though. Big-time sports are usually decided on the margins, exactly the spot where Morton finds himself as the 2014 season looms.