WHEELING - Of all the words that could be used to describe Charlie Morton - unassuming, focused, resilient - the one that stands out is grateful.
Grateful for his coaches who believed in him on his year-long road back from Tommy John surgery in 2012, and in turn helped him believe in himself. And grateful for the opportunity to help the Pirates finish what they started in 2013, making the postseason for the first time in 21 years.
On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates inked Morton to a three-year deal worth at least $21 million that will keep the right-handed sinkerball pitcher in Pittsburgh through 2016, with a $9.5 million club option for 2017. He will make $4 million in 2014, $8 million in 2015 and 2016 and would be owed an additional $1 million if the team declines to exercise the option.
"It's a big relief to know that they've made a commitment to me to keep me in Pittsburgh," Morton said Thursday during the Pirates Charities Winter CARE-a-van's stop at The Highlands. "That's all I wanted, was to stay in Pittsburgh."
By extending Morton, the Pirates have sent a message that they see him as a key piece of the puzzle as they look to build upon a 94-victory season.
The 30-year-old Morton went 7-4 with a solid 3.26 ERA in 2013 after returning from Tommy John surgery in June, and only seemed to get stronger as the year went on. He lasted seven innings or more in seven out of his 20 starts, providing much-needed rest for a bullpen that pitched more innings than all but one National League club last season - and pitched well when the Pirates handed him the ball in Game 4 of the National League Division Series with a chance to close out the eventual NL champion St. Louis Cardinals at home, only to run into a near no-hit performance by rookie phenom Michael Wacha.
Health has been the biggest obstacle for Morton since the Pirates acquired him as part of the June 2009 trade that sent former All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves. He struggled mightily in 2010, his first full year with the Pirates organization, going 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA before being sent down to AAA Indianapolis.
Morton pitched through a hip injury during a bounce-back 2011 campaign but began 2012 on the disabled list following off-season surgery to repair a torn labrum in the joint. He made just nine starts that year before being diagnosed with the ulnar collateral ligament tear that ended his season and kept him out until June 13 of this year.
With financial security and the knowledge that PNC Park will be his home for the forseeable future, Morton is ready to put all that behind him and just focus on doing his job: Take the mound every fifth day, keep the ball on the ground and give the Pirates a chance to win.
"With (the extension), there are expectations," Morton acknowledged, "but I'll try not to let that affect me."
While recovering from his elbow surgery, Morton moved to Bradenton, Fla., to be closer to the Pirates' spring training facility - and to Jim Benedict, the special assistant to General Manager Neal Huntington whose role in rejuvenating the careers of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon has been well documented. He also credits pitching coach Ray Searage for putting him in the best possible position to succeed.
"Ray is an outstanding man. He's a good, good man. ... He really wants what's best for you as an individual, and that creates an environment that you want to be in," Morton said of Searage. "Ray helps you believe in yourself, and (that) what you have is good enough."
Morton provides depth to a crowded slate of starting pitchers that includes Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke and newly-signed free agent Edinson Volquez. The decisions coming out of Spring Training 2014 could become even more difficult if the Pirates re-sign Burnett, who will turn 37 in January and continues to mull whether to pitch again next year.