Thursday, March 22, 2012
Morales makes it all the way back
By Mark Saxon
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Everything that has happened this spring has felt like background noise compared with what’s been going on with Kendrys Morales.
Two questions have dominated camp: Is he healthy, and can he still play? It’s almost as if Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson never switched teams. Landing those guys has fueled excitement heading into 2012, but the question of Morales’ health has been the paramount riddle for months.
Nobody really had any idea what he’d look like when he ran, whether his swing would hold up.
And now we’ve got an answer. He’s going to be OK. He might even be very good, maybe even as good as he was three years ago. Add up all the numbers in September and we’ll have an idea, but he’s already answered the only question he could in Arizona.
It wasn't as if he rolled out of a hospital bed and smacked a couple of singles into the outfield during the Angels’ 7-4 win over the Kansas City Royals at Tempe Diablo Stadium. In reality, it’s been weeks of hitting in private, jogging on a treadmill and even playing in minor league games that got him here, but this was the biggest hurdle yet.
Early Thursday morning, Morales’ teammates were generally excited to see him returning -- not only because he’s the second-best hitter on the team, but because it meant he would be around them in the dugout. He’s one of the funniest guys on the team. According to manager Mike Scioscia, he’s also one of the most popular.
“I’d been sitting at home watching them for a long time, and I couldn’t support my teammates,” Morales said. “To finally be out there with them and interact with them felt really good.”
Soon, we'll get an idea of what kind of production to expect.
There’s really only one reason the Angels haven’t been to the playoffs the past two seasons after dominating their division for most of a decade: They didn’t score enough runs. Specifically, they didn’t hit with enough power to hang with deeper, more powerful teams from New York, Boston and Texas, among other places.
They became associated with small ball in part because big ball wasn’t in reach.
That could -- could -- all soon change. Howie Kendrick hit 18 home runs last season, but he’s just the on ramp to the real power. Beyond him, from Pujols in the No. 3 spot through Mark Trumbo or Vernon Wells at No. 7, every hitter easily could reach the 25-home run mark. Why easily? Because they all have hit more than that and most of them reach it just about every season.
Remember those games when the Angels played the Rangers and Nelson Cruz was batting seventh or Mike Napoli was hitting eighth? It made the Angels appear puny, with their small army of 5-foot-9 switch-hitters. For the first time since Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Teixeira left, the Angels are in the Big Bats Club.
“I think we can just about compete with anybody,” Kendrick said. “We’ve got a few more bats in the lineup, and those are some big pieces. When you’ve got power like that, all the way from three to seven, it says a lot.”
If things go as planned, the Angels will be more dangerous than when they had Guerrero, Troy Glaus, Jose Guillen, Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson. In fact, pick an era. These guys are probably deeper than that team, too, but only if Morales is healthy and swinging the bat well.
“I don’t think it matters if we’re the deepest lineup we’ve ever had here. What matters is, are we going to be good enough offensively to let these pitchers pitch without their backs against the wall, which happened a lot last year,” Scioscia said.
Count Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana among the fans of seeing No. 8 dig into the batter’s box dirt once again. It was the best news Weaver had gotten since he woke up that fateful December morning to 15 text messages congratulating him on Pujols coming to Anaheim. Pitching for the Angels has been an exercise in frustration for years, with little margin for error as the offense sputtered, sometimes for weeks straight.
“I’ve played with him since high-A ball. He was a little suspect on the off-speed stuff when he was younger, but he’s a 'see-ball, hit-ball' guy, so it won’t take him long to figure it out,” Weaver said. “Any time you can bring a power switch-hitter into your lineup, it’s definitely a key.”
Is Morales a perfect addition to the lineup? No. He figures to be even slower than he was before the injury, and he wasn’t exactly Usain Bolt in 2009. Torii Hunter joked that the players who hit behind Morales are going to have to hit triples to drive him in.
But as the only source of power from the left side, he provides a crucial break to all the righties in the middle of the order. Most important, he’ll give pitchers more reason to throw Pujols something he can hit. Nobody else, with the possible exception of Trumbo, seems capable of hitting 35 home runs in a season.
Thursday was one small series of steps for Morales, but one giant step for his team.