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Question No. 3: Can Kendry Morales jumpstart the offense?

2/3/2011

Each week leading up to spring training, Mark Saxon breaks down a big question facing the Angels heading into camp.

You can still hear the frustration in Arte Moreno’s voice as he looks back at the 2010 Angels, his first losing team in 7 1/2 years as the owner. He recalls an endless series of mental mistakes, balls dropping in front of -- and over -- outfielders. He thinks of shoddy relief work.

And then he comes to this: “We weren’t prepared to replace Morales.”

A year ago, the Angels knew they were going to be thin in some areas, particularly the outfield. They had no idea how thin their lineup was. Then came that fateful May 29 afternoon, when Kendry Morales made an awkward hop onto home plate in celebration of a winning grand slam against the Seattle Mariners, slipped and snapped a bone in his left leg.

For the next four months, nearly everyone in the Angels’ lineup was forced into uncomfortable roles. Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu, who thrived as auxiliary hitters in deep lineups, struggled under the pressure of having to carry a team.

“I was batting cleanup,” Torii Hunter said. “I’ve never been a No. 4 hitter in my life.”

The Angels' offense essentially collapsed, going from No. 2 in baseball in runs scored in 2009 to No. 19. They touched the plate 202 fewer times, a fairly astonishing drop.

Morales’ return -- and the early indications are that he should be healthy by Opening Day -- could be more important to the Angels than any big-splash free agent they might have signed. But there are warning signs, too. It might be unrealistic to expect Morales to pick up where he left off, as one of the up-and-coming young sluggers.

Consider the case of Jermaine Dye. The Oakland A’s cleanup hitter shattered the shin bone of his left leg fouling off a pitch from Orlando Hernandez in the 2001 Division Series. The A’s would go on to blow that series after taking a 2-0 lead. Dye just wasn’t the same the following season.

He batted .252 and had the lowest doubles total, 27, of his career to that point.

Is it realistic for the Angels to expect Morales to return to MVP-contending form eight months after a surgery in which doctors attached screws and steel plates to hold his bones in place? Speed has never been an integral part of Morales’ game, but lingering pain could affect him both in the field and at bat.

“You can’t really tell what you’re going to get,” one scout said recently. “A leg injury like that affects your leverage, so it could be an issue for a while. That’s a major question mark for them.”

Then again, there’s no reason for pessimism yet. Word the Angels get is that Morales has been taking his rehab seriously back home in Miami and he could show up in Tempe, Ariz. next month pain-free and determined to get his career back on track.

Morales broke out in 2009, hitting .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs. He surprised many scouts with his power from both sides of the plate and his fielding ability at first base, a relatively new position. He was on a pace to repeat similar numbers before that ill-fated celebration last May.

When a reporter asked manager Mike Scioscia last October about the team’s pursuit of a big bat this winter, he smiled and said, “I think we’re going to sign Kendry Morales.”

If Morales gets his strength back, the Angels’ lineup could be improved, particularly if Maicer Izturis stays healthy. Izturis rarely does, but his .340 career on-base percentage is exactly the same as that of the lone remaining free agent leadoff hitter, Scott Podsednik. The Opening Day lineup could look something like this:

Izturis, 3B

Abreu, DH

Morales, 1B

Vernon Wells, LF

Hunter, RF

Howie Kendrick, 2B

Erick Aybar, SS

Jeff Mathis, C

Peter Bourjos, CF

It’s a lineup that falls off a cliff at the end, but has some heft in the middle. It’s also a lineup that’s one key injury away from being harmless once again. A lack of depth continues to plague this team and will until an improving farm system starts to kick in with help from below.

Until then, Morales’ return to form might be the key to making this offense go again.