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Saturday, June 7, 2014
Will Kendrys Morales power Twins' bid?

By Christina Kahrl

Kendrys Morales reportedly signed with the Minnesota Twins, which can lead to a few quick takeaways. First, of course, it’s just further proof that not everybody wants to put on pinstripes, and that’s a glorious thing. But why, after so many months, does a guy pick the Twins?

Keeping in mind that terms have not yet been disclosed, so we don’t know how long he’s signed to be a Twin -- four months, or for 2015, too? We’ll see, but the better question is why not the Twins? They may be just below .500, but they’re just 2.5 games out in the pack of ballclubs crowding the AL wild-card field. They’re also just five games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, who are in the middle of a 7-13 tumble that puts the division title back in play. So yes, as midseason moves go, suffice to say the Twins are taking themselves seriously -- and they should.

And why not? Morales is almost exactly what the Twins need. This is a lineup that is already proving effective at creating baserunners, ranking third in the AL in walk rate (9.6 percent) and tied for third in the AL in walks drawn. That’s not all Joe Mauer, who you might have expected -- Mauer has walked 27 times before Saturday’s action, but burgeoning second-base star Brian Dozier led the team with 35 freebies before action started. Heck, even struggling part-time center fielder Aaron Hicks has at least walked 27 times. The Twins are walking despite their not having reliable walker Josh Willingham active for most of the early going; now that he’s back in action and back in left field, they could already anticipate those good team-wide numbers to get even better.

Getting Morales helps them that much more, though, because he helps address what has been a weak spot: Slugging, where the Twins rank just 10th in the league in Isolated Power (or ISO). The Twins were already plating a league-average 14 percent of their baserunners, but with Willingham as well as Oswaldo Arcia both back in action to provide corner outfielder-grade offense and Morales joining the party at the DH slot, that number should improve. Morales comes in with a career ISO of .200, as well as greater effectiveness against right-handed pitching (.286/.340/.499) as a switch-hitter, making him a superb fit for the middle of the order, where he can start cashing in all those Twins baserunners. At the very least, they can dispense with Jason Kubel’s slugless comeback.

The other thing this probably helps address is what Joe Mauer has not been this season, the franchise-grade force on offense the Twins signed him to be. Plating just 9 percent of baserunners while slugging 50 points below league average (.395), this is rapidly turning into the worst season of Mauer’s career. Maybe Morales helps with that, and maybe this lets Mauer just focus on contributing OBP from the second slot for the rest of the season.

So far, so good, but can the Twins really win, when this shored-up lineup still has to outscore a rotation struggling to generate quality starts whenever Phil Hughes isn’t on the mound? Hughes has thrown eight in his 12 turns, while the rest of the starters have combined for just 17 in 47 starts, a 36 percent clip that’s hard to sustain win streaks with if you’re going to keep up in the hunt for a playoff slot. As much as signing Kendrys Morales is a good thing, the shored-up Twins lineup is going to have to seriously crank to beat that sort of near-daily handicap. And there, there may not be a good answer, beyond the expectation that former first-rounder Kyle Gibson is supposed to get better, and that the same expectations that led to signing Ricky Nolasco and Kevin Correia as free agents should fuel the expectation they’ll be better in the second half. If they’re not, the Twins won’t go anywhere, even if they manage to hang around .500.

Which brings us to why signing with the Twins might especially make sense for Morales, without knowing about how much money was in play. Say the Twins fall entirely out of the race -- if that happens, they’re an obvious seller at the deadline, and Morales could look forward to being dealt to a team in a stronger position in the standings. Rather than pick a contender and hope for the best, signing with the longshot team provides him with a chance there, and potentially a chance to be dealt to an even better opportunity to return to the postseason in two months. Considering Morales hasn’t played any October baseball since 2009, it’s not the worst gambit for a guy who has already lost so much of this season to taking a bad risk on his value on the open market as a free agent.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.