It’s premature to proclaim but not preposterous to think that Kendry Morales could be to the Angels over the next six seasons what Vladimir Guerrero was to them in the last six: a slugger to build an offense around.
The biggest difference between them is that the creaky-kneed, injury-prone Guerrero is 36 and at the end of a distinguished career that has taken him to Texas this season, while Morales is 26, a chiseled 6-foot-2, 231-pound switch-hitter with a neon-bright future.
In his first full big league season in 2009, Morales hit .306 with 34 home runs and 108 runs batted in and finished fifth in the American League most-valuable-player voting, a break-out performance that established him as an AL star.
Kind of like a certain slugger who signed with the Angels before the 2004 season, hit .337 with 39 homers and 126 RBIs and won the AL MVP that year.
“I think he has the potential to be in Vlad’s class when it’s all said and done,” Manager Mike Scioscia said of Morales. “Vlad had a pretty special 12 years, what he did in Montreal, what he did for us.
“When you talk about a guy who can hit third or fourth in a championship-caliber lineup, that’s a select club, and Kendry is approaching that.”
Morales, who is batting .364 (20 for 55) with two homers and 12 RBIs this spring, is beginning to look and act like a player of Guerrero’s stature.
During brief stints with the Angels from 2006-2008, the first baseman rarely smiled or showed much emotion in the clubhouse. He seemed serious, dour, uncomfortable.
Now, he is the center of clubhouse banter among the Latin players, singing along with his iPod and laughing his way through batting practice.
“He comes into the cage whistling, doing baton flips with the bat and saying, ‘Bring it on! Bring it on!’ ” said Mickey Hatcher, the Angels batting coach.
“Every day it’s the same thing. The young kids see it and what it’s done for him. He just has fun in a good way.”
Hatcher has an idea why Morales is so loose. A Cuban national team star as a teenager, Morales tried to defect 11 times, going to jail after three unsuccessful attempts, before a boat carrying Morales and 18 of his countrymen landed in the Florida Keys on June 8, 2004.
“He’s overcome so many things in his life that I think baseball is just fun for him,” Hatcher said. “A bad at-bat is nothing.”
Morales said his personality emerged when he started feeling like he belonged.
“I came up in a regime where everything was pretty strict,” Morales said through an interpreter. “When I walked into the clubhouse, there were guys here like Garret Anderson, guys who accomplished a lot.
“Deep inside of me, I wanted to get to that level to where I was able to accomplish a lot, and the same respect I showed for them, people are showing for me. I goof around. That’s my personality.”
Though Morales seemed to burst onto the big league scene last season, his opportunity created when free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira spurned the Angels to sign an eight-year, $180-million deal with the New York Yankees, he was hardly an overnight sensation.
Morales reported to his first spring training with the Angels in 2006 puffy and out of shape, with little grasp of the game’s fundamentals.
“It wasn’t that the effort wasn’t there, but this kid was really, really raw,” Scioscia said. “He was also very naive to the work it was going to take to get to the level he needed to be.”
The late Preston Gomez, a Cuban native and a longtime Angels special assistant, had a lengthy meeting with Morales that spring, one Hatcher said was “heated” at times.
“It was about being focused, working hard, getting his body into shape because you could see the talent was there...” Hatcher said. “He came out of that room on a mission. A lot of good things came from that.”
Morales honed his work ethic and refined his skills while splitting the 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons between triple-A Salt Lake and Anaheim, emerging as an offensive threat and solid defender.
But it wasn’t until 2009, when Morales began having all of his meals prepared for and sent to him by a nutrition company, that he got into peak physical condition and emerged as a star.
“The hardest thing to control was the eating and the sweets,” Morales said.
“I needed to do more in the off-season besides playing winter ball to get physically stronger.”
His challenge this season is that he is a known commodity, and it’s doubtful he will get the kind of “meat pitches,” as Hatcher calls them, he got in 2009.
“It’s amazing; those guys go home in the off-season and they study you,” center fielder Torii Hunter said of opposing team’s scouts and coaches. “They’ll say, ‘What did he hit? This, that? OK, let’s focus on what he didn’t hit.’ Now, they know your weaknesses, and you have to make the adjustments.”
That doesn’t necessarily give opposing pitchers an edge. As veteran right fielder Bobby Abreu notes, “Kendry knows the league, which is going to be good for him.
“They’re going to try to change the game for him. They’ll move the ball around the plate more. You have to be patient, wait for your pitch and take advantage of mistakes. But I think he’s going to put up better numbers than he did last year.”
Another season or two like 2009, and Morales’ career arc will begin to look a lot like Guerrero’s.
“Before you can really get excited about somebody, you’ve got to see him play a couple of years,” Hatcher said. “He’s had success, but will he maintain that same work ethic and level of play over the next few years? I believe he will, and if he does, he will be that guy. He will be Guerrero.”
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Angels 11, Chicago Cubs 0
AT THE PLATE: Terry Evans improved his spring average from .194 to .293 with a two-run homer, a double and three singles. Mike Napoli hit a prodigious two-run homer off Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano, outfield prospect Peter Bourjos had a two-run homer and an RBI double, and catcher Bobby Wilson had an RBI double and a single.
ON THE MOUND: Relievers Scot Shields and Fernando Rodney followed Jered Weaver’s five shutout innings by retiring the side in order, Shields in the sixth inning and Rodney in the seventh.
EXTRA BASES: Wilson, a catcher, played three innings at first base, his first action there this spring and an indication that the Angels are strongly considering him for the 25-man roster. Wilson is out of options, meaning a team can claim him off waivers if the Angels try to send him to triple A.
UP NEXT: Joe Saunders will pitch against San Diego’s Chris Young in a 7 p.m. game Thursday at Angel Stadium. Matt Palmer will face Cleveland’s Aaron Laffey in a noon game in Tempe, Ariz.
ON THE AIR: TV: Prime Ticket (Padres game); Radio: 830.
-- Mike DiGiovanna
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Kendry vs. Vladimir
A look at how Kendry Morales’ breakout 2009 season compares to the statistics Vladimir Guerrero averaged
during his six years with the Angels:
Kendry Morales 2009
*--* G AB H 2B HR R RBI Avg. OBP SLG% 152 622 173 43 34 86 108 306 355 569 *--*
Vladimir Guerrero 2004-09 averages
*--* G AB H 2B HR R RBI Avg. OBP SLG% 141 601 172 32 29 91 103 319 381 546 *--*