SAN FRANCISCO – In Matt Morris, the San Francisco Giants found the proven starter they’ve been coveting for months.

Not to mention an individual with a classy reputation who believes he can lead a young pitching staff and learn from everybody else along the way, too.

The free agent right-hander agreed to a $27 million, three-year contract with the Giants, leaving the St. Louis Cardinals after nine seasons.

The deal has been in the works for weeks and became official after Morris passed a physical Monday morning.

“I’m ecstatic to be here,” Morris said when formally introduced at the city’s waterfront ballpark.

“I appreciate the organization for having the interest in me. That really showed me a lot, even though (they) didn’t know this was my first choice.”

He will receive a $2 million signing bonus at the end of his contract and is scheduled to make $5 million next season and $9.5 million in both 2007 and 08.

The contract contains a $9 million club option for a fourth season.

that could go up to as much as $11 million with escalators based on performance.

He would receive a $1 million buyout if the option is declined.

The 31-year-old Morris went 14-10 with a 4.11 ERA last season and won his first eight decisions for the Cardinals, who lost to the Houston Astros in the NL championship series. But St. Louis didn’t pursue Morris with the same fervor as the Giants, who were desperate to add a top starter to what had become a patchwork rotation the past two seasons.

The Cardinals offered Morris a two-year deal for $13 million.

“I knew that’s a slap in the face,” said Giants catcher Mike Matheny, who worked with Morris in St. Louis and considers the pitcher a good friend. “I’d been in the same situation.”

Giants general manager Brian Sabean said as soon as the season ended – after the Giants missed the playoffs for the second straight year – that upgrading the team’s starting pitching was his top priority.

The Giants welcomed Morris, a 22-game winner in 2001, with a greeting on the main center-field scoreboard at SBC Park. And manager Felipe Alou made the long flight from Florida for the announcement. Morris and his wife, Heather, also live in Florida.

“It’s a very special moment to have a man of his stature and a pitcher of his stature,” Alou said. “We needed it badly. When I left the winter meetings, I had lost all faith. Brian wasn’t saying anything. It was a tough trip going home, then all of a sudden it’s a beautiful trip coming back here. Everybody knew we needed a pitcher. To find a man like this … it’s a Christmas gift.”

Sabean received strong recommendations from numerous scouts, and Matheny.

It’s been a lucrative offseason for pitchers, and Morris has paid attention.

“I guess it’s a rare commodity, a guy who can throw a ton of innings – 200 innings, there’s nothing better for a manager and a bullpen,” Morris said. “Nowadays, that seems to be rare. I’m looking to put my piece in, save the bullpen and win some games.”

Morris is 101-62 with a 3.62 ERA in his career. He became the 12th player in St. Louis franchise history to win 100 games when he beat the Giants on Aug. 20.

“Simply put, Matt Morris is a winner,” Sabean said. “He’s a gamer who not only gives his team a chance to win every time he pitches, but as his record indicates, he’s around to collect the win himself. Matt will be a perfect complement to the top of the rotation and provide valuable leadership to our younger pitchers.”

Morris will join right-hander Jason Schmidt in a San Francisco rotation that’s undergone several changes in the last year, including the departure of Kirk Rueter and also probably Brett Tomko after San Francisco declined to offer him arbitration last week.

Returning to the rotation are left-hander Noah Lowry and top prospect Matt Cain, who made his long-awaited major league debut Aug. 29 and won two games in his seven starts as a rookie.

Morris had “eight or nine suitors,” said his agent, Barry Axelrod, but the Giants were at the top of the pitcher’s list. Morris made his final decision Saturday after giving the Cardinals a final chance, then he called Matheny to give him the good news they would be teammates again.

“I was excited,” Matheny said. “He’s somebody I think is going to help us.”

AP-ES-12-12-05 2000EST

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