Thursday, March 19, 2009

By Victor Varadi - Columnist

In his second at-bat of his first Major League baseball game, the big Cuban stepped to the plate and knocked the cover off the ball, a home run that would spark a 14-hit barrage and a 7-6 victory that ended a six-game slide by the Angels. Kendry Morales was that Cuban and he was 22 years old.

Fast-forwarding three years from that 3-for-5, 3-RBI night, things now don’t seem all that different from that warm and windy Texas night. Once again, the Angels offense rests squarely on K-Mo’s ability to be the offensive juggernaut that made the Angels fight the New York Yankees for the chance to sign him to a six-year deal fresh off his defection from Cuba. And make no mistake; the Angels expect big things from Morales. Why shouldn’t they?

Morales is the definition of a ball player; he’s big, strong, hits it hard from both sides of the plate and was almost as good a pitcher as a hitter as a 17-year-old on the Cuban national team. But since becoming an Angel, Morales has been stuck way down the depth chart at first base behind Casey Kotchman and Robb Quinlan; and as a hitter, due to an aging outfield needing constant rest, he has been unable to fill the DH role originally envisioned for him when the Angels signed him. The 2008 mid-season trade of Kotchman to the Braves for Mark Teixeira, however, moved Morales up the depth chart and to the big league club for what seemed to be for good, at the very least as a back-up to Teixera if not as the everyday DH.

If Angels fans ponder why the team didn’t up its offer to Mark Teixera once it became clear there were better offers on the table for the perennial All-Star, they only need look to last October for their collective answer. In Game 1 of the ALDS, Morales pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth with one out and the Angels trailing by three. Facing one of the game’s best closers, Jonathan Papelbon, K-Mo roped a single into right field, entirely unfazed by the pressure of the situation or his opponent’s stuff.

A few nights later, with Game 4 tied, 2-2, and the Angels looking to do the improbable and send the series back to Anaheim for a winner-take-all Game 5, K-Mo once again came through in the clutch, scorching a double off the green monster to open the ninth inning.

Obviously there is more to a player than two at-bats, but there’s something very telling when you look closely at them and the way Morales strolled to the plate. In both games, and in the series for that matter, his teammates looked tight at times and sometimes played that way — both a product of one too many October losses at the hands of the Red Sox. The exception was K-Mo — and maybe it was because he had not really been part of those teams that had in recent years been swept out of the playoffs by the Red Sox — but there was an undeniable swagger about Morales that was, for long stretches, painfully missing from the rest of the Angels squad.

So far this spring, Morales has not disappointed. In 40 at-bats, K-Mo is hitting an even .400 with six doubles and one homer. If there is a knock on Morales, it might be that he doesn’t walk a lot. And while his batting average is a scorcher, fans may be worried that the power hasn’t shown its face, either this spring or at the Major League level.

Don’t forget that Morales has played only sporadically in the Majors over the last three years, his minor league numbers proving that there is only one place left for him to play. And as Eddie Bane, Angels director of scouting, says about Morales, with regular at-bats and “that type of swing with that type balance … you know power is coming.”

With a new season comes new hope, and much of that hope rests on Morales’ shoulders. It was a nail-biter of a winter as Angels fans waited with baited breath for the re-signing of Teixeira. The Angels front office, however, isn’t one of the best in baseball for nothing. They knew they could let Teixera go elsewhere because they had Kendry Morales.

So, let’s put this issue to rest once and for all; had the Angels not had K-Mo and instead had to look to Robb Quinlan to fill that first base void, chances are great they’d have wound up overpaying for Teixeira.

The Angels will go this year as K-Mo goes. Yes, Vlad is the meat in the middle of the order, but Morales will be looked upon to supply batting average, power and just a little bit of swagger.
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