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Morton says Pirates' faith led to him staying in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton gets ready for the autograph signing session at the PirateFest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Sunday December 15, 2013.

Charlie Morton knows the contract extension he agreed to last week limits his earning potential. The Pirates' right-handed pitcher understands compensation has soared on the free-agent market, which he could have entered after next season, where mid-rotation arms are enjoying eight-figure, per-season contracts.

But Morton said at PirateFest that maximizing his value was not the chief objective in negotiating a three-year, $21 million contract extension. Morton said a primary focus was remaining with the organization that traded for him in 2009 and hung with him despite uneven performance and injury, which included Tommy John surgery in 2012.

“The way I looked at it was, I wanted to be a Pirate,” Morton said. “The only way I'm going to be a Pirate is if I sign with the Pirates. Say I have a phenomenal year this year and I go into free agency; I still wanted to be a Pirate.

“(Testing free agency) — that's not what I wanted. I wanted to be here working with the men in that clubhouse and for the people in the city. That's what the draw was for me. Working with guys like (pitching coach) Ray (Searage) and (special assistant) Jim Benedict. … Everything keeps going back to 2009 when they wanted me here in this organization when they traded for me. They kept giving me opportunities even when I failed.”

Four years after the Pirates traded Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves for Morton, Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez, the investment began to pay off.

Searage and Benedict helped rebuild Morton's delivery and refine his sinking fastball. If he had enough innings to qualify, Morton (7-4, 3.29 ERA) would have led baseball in groundball percentage (62.9) last season.

For the Pirates, extending Morton was an offseason priority. A.J. Burnett is a free agent and contemplating retirement. Francisco Liriano is signed for one more season as is Wandy Rodriguez. Before Morton's extension, Gerrit Cole was the club's only impact starter down the stretch in 2013 who was controlled beyond this season.

“You look for ways to maintain sustainability, and you look toward your pitching staff first for stability,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Charlie took big steps forward in many areas last year.”

The Pirates believe there is upside with Morton, who struggled with left-handers last season: He was essentially a two-pitch pitcher. He began to mix in a split-change in the second half of last season, and it's a pitch he hopes to refine in spring training.

“Rehab kind of hindered any kind of pitch-adding,” Morton said. “I think now I can look at my needs and see what my needs are … what I can do to get better against lefties.”

Notes: Hurdle said he is considering moving catcher Russell Martin into the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Hurdle said he will likely will keep Starling Marte at leadoff and would like Pedro Alvarez to seize the cleanup spot … General manager Neal Huntington said the club does not have the financial resources to pursue free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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