Charlie Morton, a dead ringer for what the Nationals want and need, is now part of the team they are chasing.
Morton signed a one-year, $15 million deal Tuesday morning with the Braves. Morton is returning to a different Atlanta organization as a different pitcher. He’s older, better and an elite killer in the postseason. The Braves were already the best regular-season team in the division. They are clearly the team to beat now after adding Morton and Drew Smyly to address their weakest 2020 point, the starting rotation. The Braves are loaded. Not Dodgers loaded, but close.
Five options for the Nationals’ fourth starter spot are already gone from a glacially paced free agent market. Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman each accepted qualifying offers to prevent them from entering free agency. Robbie Ray signed an $8 million deal with Toronto. Smyly signed for $11 million in Atlanta. Then came Morton, one of the most intriguing options on the market, Tuesday.
Choices remain. From the big-ticket item of Trevor Bauer to high-ceiling reclamation projects like Corey Kluber. A bevy of less-compelling veterans, like Mike Fiers, are also available. The Nationals are far from shut out in this spot. However, two quality options have already gone to a prime rival.
Which leads to a debate about the current state of starting rotations in the National League East.
The Nationals have the highest-cost, the best track record and a clear chance to have the best rotation in the division. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, at their best, can match or exceed anyone in the major leagues. The question chasing them is if they will be. Strasburg was again hurt in 2020 -- a repeat activity for him now across his 11 years in the league -- but the Nationals expect him to be fine at spring training. Scherzer did not pitch well in 2020, though his Hall of Fame career suggests he will be at least an above average pitcher for one more year. Corbin had the worst year of his career in 2020 after a stellar 2019.
The fourth starter spot is vacant. The fifth starter is again going to be extracted from Erick Fedde, Joe Ross or Austin Voth.
Washington’s future is simple: Those top three need to pitch well for the Nationals to be good. That’s it. They are the crux of the team both financially and on the field. If they fail, the team fails, which was abundantly clear in 2020 (as was the reverse in 2019).
Atlanta’s rotation now has depth, if not the high-end front to match the Nationals. Max Fried is evolving into one of the better pitchers in the National League, Morton is a strong second option if healthy (the caveat for all players), Ian Anderson may become the best pitcher on the staff, Smyly toward the back is in the right slot and Kyle Wright is a fifth starter in pedigree and results. He could well be swapped out before or during the season. The argument for Atlanta's rotation is only amplified if Mike Soroka is healthy. He recently began throwing following a torn right Achilles tendon in his push-off leg in August. Soroka had surgery to repair the injury Aug. 7 and the Braves have not set a timetable for his return.
The wrinkle here for these two staff comparisons is expense. Strasburg will make $35 million by himself next year. The entire Braves rotation will cost roughly $30.65 million (a projection that includes a $3.5 million pre-arbitration salary for Fried next season). Atlanta is still in a spot with fewer overall needs than the Nationals, having improved its greatest weakness and still able to later cash in on a big free agent. So, the comparison becomes one of cost-value, not strictly is Pitcher A better than Pitcher B in a vacuum.
And, don’t forget Miami. It has an intriguing young staff with Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López, Sixto Sánchez and Elisier Hernández. If this was a discussion about which group has the most potential the next five years, it is hands down Miami. Especially from a cost-value perspective. All four can become free agents in 2025.
The Phillies rotation has a quality top two in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Afterward, their rotation quickly runs out of steam. They need help -- still -- on the mound.
The Mets went through multiple cycles in recent years of building similar to the Nationals. A top-heavy rotation was supposed to be their ticket to the postseason and beyond. They head toward 2021 with one of the best pitchers in baseball, if not the best, in Jacob deGrom. Marcus Stroman -- who has a 3.76 career ERA -- is next. Behind them is Seth Lugo, who was pushed into the rotation last season and David Peterson, who had a solid debut year in 2020 (123 ERA-plus).
Overall, the debate about the division’s best rotation became much more balanced after Atlanta signed Morton and Smyly. At the least, the best team in the division improved, which is problematic for those trying to unseat it.