Monday, September 14, 2009

Angels’ Morales Filling Teixeira’s Shoes for Millions Less

Kendry Morales was a bit player for the Los Angeles Angels last season, a raw first baseman who hit .213 in 61 at-bats. He spent most of the season buried in Class AAA because the Angels had Casey Kotchman and then Mark Teixeira handling first. There was no room in the dugout for Morales.

In the off-season, Los Angeles wanted to re-sign Teixeira, who was a free agent, but he left for the Yankees in December. The Angels had sent Kotchman to the Atlanta Braves to acquire Teixeira in July 2008, so they were left with Morales to play first this season. They were left with the extra guy as their first baseman.

Replacing Teixeira’s production seemed to be a potential problem for the Angels, but Morales’s surprising output has allowed their offense to move ahead seamlessly. Morales, who signed with the Angels after leaving Cuba in June 2004, has statistics that are comparable to Teixeira’s, and like Teixeira has been mentioned as a candidate for the American League Most Valuable Player award.

After the Yankees’ 5-3 victory over the Angels on Monday night, Morales was batting .306 with 30 home runs and 98 runs batted in. Teixeira, who is a much better defensive player than Morales, was at .285 with 35 homers and 111 R.B.I.

Morales’s ascent from understudy to standout has been a revelation for a team with the second-best record in the majors, behind the Yankees.

“I definitely think he’s going to be a superstar,” Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said.

Hunter gushed about the adjustments that Morales had made at the plate in his first full season in the major leagues. By the time Morales made it to June, Hunter said, his adjustments were so efficient that he was “hitting everybody.” Hunter added that the difference between Morales’s defense in April and now was “night and day.”

After Morales, 26, had softly answered two questions, it was obvious that he was humble, too. Morales said that he did not expect to do this well, but noted that he had worked hard to help make it happen. Once the Angels did not bring back Teixeira, Morales said he focused on just making the team and winning Teixeira’s old job.

“Thank God, everything after that worked out,” Morales said through an interpreter.

It has worked out so splendidly that it has made Morales speechless. When he was asked about being an M.V.P. candidate, he said, “I don’t have words to express how proud I am.”

Morales played 21 of his 27 games as a September call-up last year and did not have much of an impact. Still, Teixeira said that Morales, a fellow switch-hitter, was adept at spraying line drives and swinging at good pitches. In some ways, Teixeira, whose contract is worth $180 million, was describing a much less expensive version of himself. Morales’s six-year, $4.5 million deals runs through 2010.

“I’m never surprised seeing young players with the ability to hit that produce,” Teixeira said. “Sometimes, all you need is a chance. Sometimes, all you need is 500 at-bats to prove what you can do. And he got that this year.”

Morales’s road to the majors started well before he joined the Angels. After he starred for Industriales in Cuba, he was sent home from an Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama in 2003. Because the Cubans were suspicious that Morales would try to defect, he was forbidden from playing baseball anymore.

Once Morales could no longer play, he intensified his efforts to leave the country and play in the United States. He said he tried to defect 12 times.

“They didn’t let me play ball in Cuba,” Morales said. “That’s what I love. That’s why I didn’t give up. I was going to get out one way or the other.”

Now Morales is finally where he wanted to be, enjoying his freedom and playing a crucial role for a major league team. The Angels were patient with Morales for the last three seasons because they wanted him to become a better defensive player. Mike Scioscia, the Angels’ manager, said Morales’s blossoming was an example of a very good player who benefited from minor league experience and was now succeeding.

“He is talented enough,” Scioscia said. “He’s not in over his head. This is something he’s capable of doing.”

Roberto González Echevarria, a professor at Yale who has written about Cuban baseball, said Morales had elevated himself with his superb season and “must be the best Cuban-born player in the major leagues” now. Morales, still showing his humble side, did not want to give himself that title ahead of players like Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar andWhite Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

“This is just my first year in the big leagues, and they’ve been around for a while,” he said. “I’ve been up and down from the major leagues to the minor leagues. So let’s wait. It’s just my first year.”

But, Morales was told, it has been a good first full year. He smiled.

“Of course,” Morales said. “Excellent.”


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