Commentary

Angels feel Morales ready for key role

After four years of development in minor leagues, first baseman 'ready this time'

Originally Published: April 1, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

In sports, the word "defected" is used too liberally and not literally, as in Mark Teixeira "defected" from the Angels to the Yankees this winter. Teixeira did indeed sign with the Yankees -- for $180 million, and without having to fear for his life -- leaving an opening for first baseman Kendry Morales, who really did defect from Cuba five years ago after eight unsuccessful tries. Morales now appears to be ready for a breakthrough season with the Angels.

[+] EnlargeKendry Morales
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuKendry Morales is expected to hit seventh in the Angels' batting order to begin the season.

For the money that would have gone to Teixeira, the Angels were able to sign outfielders Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu, and closer Brian Fuentes. Not signing Teixeira also allowed the Halos to give Morales, 25, his first real shot at playing every day in the big leagues. Is he ready?

"If we're wrong on this guy," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, "then it will be the worst miss we've ever had here." That is to say, the Angels are certain that the switch-hitting Morales is ready to thrive.

"We think he can do some special things," said Angels general manager Tony Reagins. "He has done it on the minor league side, and he has learned and shown and developed over the years to the point that he should be a very good player on the major league level."

The learning has come slowly. In 2004, when Morales defected to the United States, "he was very raw," Scioscia said. "He didn't know how to take a secondary lead." Reagins added, "He didn't know how to play the game. I remember in July that first year in [Class A] Rancho Cucamonga, he would be on defense at first base, and he'd be practicing his swing; you simply do not do that. He would hit a ground ball and jog to first base. That was accepted in Cuba. But in this organization, it's about taking ownership. This is an aggressive organization, it's about being professional. Now he runs out every ground ball, and is a professional on both sides of the ball. He'll be fine. He's ready to be an everyday player."

Everything points toward that. In the four years he's spent in the minor leagues, Morales has hit over .300 every year; in three stops at Triple-A, Morales hit .320, then .341, then .341 again. In winter ball this year in the Dominican Republic, he was also terrific. "Winter ball is a very high league, especially in the Dominican," Reagins said. "And he handled that league."

He has also been terrific this spring. In 59 at-bats, he has hit .356, slugged .576, hit two home runs and driven in nine runs. His defense has improved to the point where he is at least an average first baseman -- not Teixeira, but adequate.

"I've seen him in the minor leagues, I just saw him in the Dominican, and I've seen him this spring," one scout said. "It's amazing how much he has grown as a player the last few years. I wouldn't be surprised if he hit .300 with 25 home runs and around 100 RBIs this season. I just think that now that he has a job, instead of fighting for time, and he's older, he is ready this time."

Mike Scioscia If we're wrong on [Kendry Morales], then it will be the worst miss we've ever had here.

-- Angels manager Mike Scioscia

Morales probably wasn't ready in his three previous trips to the major leagues; in those stints, he hit a combined .249 with a .302 on-base percentage and a .408 slugging percentage and grounded into 19 double plays in 377 at-bats. He served mostly as a backup to Casey Kotchman, who was traded last summer to Atlanta in the deal for Teixeira. One reason the Angels could deal Kotchman is they knew they had Morales.

"I don't feel pressure," Morales said, through an interpreter, about replacing Teixeira. "I can go back to the times when Kotchman was hurt, and I had to step in. Those times served me well now."

Morales' best time came in Game 4 of the American League Division Series last year against the Red Sox. He led off the top of the ninth inning with a double off reliever Justin Masterson, surely the biggest hit of Morales' career.

"He created a footprint there," Reagins said. "Now it's time to expand it."

The Angels will no doubt miss Teixeira, but with Abreu and the switch-hitting Morales, they have addressed some of their deficiencies from the left side. Abreu will hit, that's for sure. And from all indications last year, so will Morales.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.