09/12/09 10:46 AM ET
Perseverance pays off for Halos' Morales
First baseman handling task of filling Teixeira's shoes
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Few have persevered like Kendry Morales, who made a dozen attempts to flee Cuba before finally succeeding in 2004, and then waited patiently, honing his skills, for a position to open up in the Major Leagues.
It happened when Mark Teixeira elected to move to New York over the winter, enabling Morales to claim a steady job at first base. It's been The Show and tell ever since for the 26-year-old Morales.
While Teixeira has been making the Yankees and their fandom happy with their eight-year, $180 million investment, Morales has left the Angels ecstatic with his performance in the big man's absence -- at about three percent of Tex's $22.5 million annual salary.
"We've been saying it since Spring Training -- Morales is gonna hit," said Torii Hunter, the voice of club Morales, who has helped drive the Angels into the American League West lead. "We figured 20-plus homers and 80-plus RBIs, and he's well over that.
"This guy is the real deal. The only question we had was if he could play defense -- and he's answered that too."
For Morales, who rode the Salt Lake shuttle between the Pacific Coast League and American League for three years while Casey Kotchman and then Teixeira handled first base, the wait was worth it.
"The guys that played ahead of me were seasoned players, and I didn't deserve to play in the big leagues yet," Morales said, having hit .249 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 377 Major League at-bats coming into the season. "But I'm glad I waited for the opportunity.
"The one thing I thought about -- not how long I had to wait -- was just to concentrate on playing well once that opportunity came."
Morales had a solid first half, taking a .284 average with 15 homers and 49 RBIs to the break along with athletic defense at first, featuring a strong, accurate arm.
Coming back for the second half, the muscular switch-hitter simply erupted.
It took Morales 49 games in July and August to match his power numbers through 82 first-half games: 15 homers, 49 RBIs. He hit .344 in those 49 games, claiming the American League Player of the Month award for August with a club record 33 RBIs in the month, powered by 10 homers.
"I told myself that if I could drive in 80 to 85 runs and hit about 25 home runs, I'd be able to help the team the win," Morales said. "But, thankfully, I've gone beyond that -- and now I can't look back because I'm not done yet."
Morales is as proud of his glove work as the loud noises his bat has made, highlighted by his epic performance at Angel Stadium on Aug. 28 when he unloaded two homers, two doubles and a single, driving in six runs.
"I've spent as much time working on my defense as my hitting," he said. "Earlier this season, it took me some time to get the timing back out there. But once the season has progressed it's gotten easier, because I've gotten to know the hitters and our pitching staff.
"Right now, I feel good defensively."
Hunter, an eight-time Rawlings Gold Glove center fielder, fully understands the value of consistent defense. He has been impressed with Morales' commitment and improvement with the glove.
"Since April, it's been night and day," Hunter said. "He learns quick, and that's what's going to make him a superstar."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia threw Morales' hat into the AL MVP derby recently, an indication of how far the young athlete has traveled -- light years.
"They might not vote for him because it's his first full year and he's not a big name yet," Hunter said. "I definitely think he should [be considered].
"Look at his numbers, look where he plays and where he's batting in the lineup. Guys like Teixeira are batting third, and he has A-Rod and everyone hitting around him. And he's in a bigger market.
"But just to get consideration is special. And [Joe] Mauer, back in Minnesota, is putting up some real nice numbers too."
Morales, like so many younger Angels, has benefitted from the wisdom and experience of such veteran hands as Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero, Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu.
The impact of Abreu, especially, has been impossible to miss in the clubhouse.
"I think the Spanish language helps because they talk a lot," Hunter said of Abreu's relationship with Morales. "Bobby has been on Kendry for a while. I've heard some shouting matches between them two. He's been trying to help him work on some things."
Scioscia downplays the Latino flavor making things more comfortable for Morales, who admittedly struggled adapting to the language and a whole new society of customs after launching his professional career in 2005 at the Angels' high Class A Rancho Cucamonga outlet.
"I don't think [his development] has anything to do with Latino players," Scioscia said. "A young player coming up, there's a seasoning going on.
"With Vlad, Torii Hunter, Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu in front of him, that let this guy hit at a certain comfort level and just play baseball. It's good for a young player to come up with a deep lineup, hitting sixth, seventh in a lineup like that."
Morales primarily has hit fifth and sixth, with seven appearances in the cleanup spot.
"With Kendry, we're going to see that progression from fifth and sixth to third and fourth as his career moves forward," Scioscia said. "It's good for a young hitter not to have to jump into the middle of a lineup on a regular basis.
"This is the deepest lineup we've had since '02 [the World Series championship season], and Kendry has been a big part of it."
The Angels have had their share of bombers over the years -- Guerrero, Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson, Reggie Jackson, Mo Vaughn, Don Baylor, Tim Salmon, Leon Wagner. But they've never had a switch-hitter with Morales' muscle.
"This guy has big-time power, from both sides," Hunter said. "And he's just getting started. That's the most exciting part of the whole Kendry Morales story."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.