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Arizona Fall League Notebook
By Chris Kline
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.óWhen you look at the big-bodied shortstop ranging to his left, smoothly reaching down to make a one-handed grab and then firing to first, images of a young Alex Rodriguez dance through your head.
Maybe itís the Mariners white home uniform.
Maybe itís the way he crouches in a set position as the pitcher goes into his windup.
Maybe itís just the simple fact that heís 6-foot-5, 200 pounds.
Whatever it is, Mariners shortstop Mike Morse is a near-split image of the now third baseman of the Bronx Bombers, and appears to be emulating one of his heroes.
"I try," Morse said of the A-Rod impersonation, laughing. "Heís been such a big influence on me since I got drafted. He made it legit for big guys to play short and turn it into an offensive position. Well, Ripken was first, but A-Rod took it to another level."
The influence Rodriguez had on Morse goes back to a week after the White Sox drafted him in the third round in 2000 out of Nova (Fla.) High.
Growing up in South Florida not far from where A-Rod grew up, Morse knew the ins and outs of places Rodriguez frequented. Soon after the draft, fateóand research--had its way.
Morse and a few friends were eating lunch at a Miami restaurant when he saw A-Rod sitting by himself, downing a sandwich. He ran into him in the bathroom some time later.
"I was nervous as heck," Morse said. "We were in the bathroom standing in front of the sink and I just introduced myself. 'Mr. Rodriguez? Iím Mike Morse. I just got drafted by the White Sox.'"
"Let me guess," Rodriguez said. "Pitcher?"
Two guesses later, Rodriguez got it right. He then offered his congratulations and the two went back to their respective tables. At the end of the meal, the waitress came over to Morseís table with a look of confusion on her face.
"Do you guys really know Alex Rodriguez?" she gushed. "He just paid for your lunch."
On the way out, Morse stopped over at A-Rodís table to thank him. Then the two sat and talked at length on what it takes for a big man to play a premium position.
"I was trying to stay composed," Morse said. "I mean, heíd just picked up the tab for me and my friends, which had to be over 100 bucks and he tipped the waitress like 50. We talked for a while about the position. Iíll never forget the one thing he told meóĎDonít ever, ever let them tell you you canít play short. No matter what they say, you have to believe in yourself.'"The Original
Fate had its way with Morse more than just once. When he was playing short at Class A Winston-Salem in 2002, Cal Ripken was in town caught a game when the Warthogs were on the road in Wilmington, Del. After the game, Ripken came into the ĎHogs clubhouse to talk to manager Razor Shines and visit with the players.
"Everyone was lining up to get him to sign stuff for them," Morse said. "I just wanted to meet him."
When Morse came up to Ripken, the original shortstop who turned the position into an offensive position told him to wait a few minutes to talk to him.
"It was great," Morse said. "I got to pick his brain and get a ton of advice on how to play the position. He taught me little things about when to charge, and when to stay back on balls and rely on my arm. And I know I have the arm strength to do that when it calls for it."
That wasnít the only time Ripken came to see Morse, however. He made such an impression on the Orioles great that Ripken drove up from Aberdeen, Md., to see Morse two more times that season, just to see his development.
"Iíve been so lucky, man, with being able to meet two of the greatest shortstops this game has ever seen," Morse said. "For those guys to take that time with me is unbelievable. I canít even explain how much confidence that gave me."Not A Throw-In
Heading into last season, Morse had passed Andy Gonzalez and Pedro Lopez as the shortstop with the most upside in the system. He appeared to be on the fast track as his power numbers improved after beginning the season at Double-A Birmingham, where Morse developed a close relationship with manager Razor Shines.
Their relationship hit a detour, though, during an 11-inning late June game in Birmingham. While standing on-deck, Morse heard a commotion going on in the dugout. Baronsí trainer Joe Geck came over to Shines, telling him he had a phone call from White Sox general manager Kenny Williams.
All sorts of things went through Morseís mind while he was standing outside the dugoutóhe was just coming off a 10-game suspension for violating team rulesóand now Shines was on a cell phone, talking to Williams, and staring right through Morseís eyes while he waited to hit.
"Mike, come here," Shines said. "Youíre out of the game. Youíve been traded."
"I didnít know what to say," Morse said. "I just asked him if that was a good thing and he said, 'Hell yeah thatís a good thing, boy. Youíve just been traded for a big league pitcher.'"
When the deal went down sending Freddy Garcia to the White Sox, Morse was part of the package the Mariners received, along with No. 1 prospect center fielder Jeremy Reed and big league catcher Miguel Olivo. When he recovered from the initial shock of being dealt away from the team that drafted him, he thought he was just a guy they threw in to complete the trade. But he later found out the Sox wanted to send outfielder Joe Borchard in the deal and Mariners scouting director Bob Fontaine was adamant about getting the young shortstop as part of the package.
"When they told me that, I was like, ĎOh, OK,í and I knew I was going to a team that saw me as a part of their long term future."
He finished the year with Double-A San Antonio after the trade and made a positive impression on manager Dave Brundage.
"He's an interesting player; the tools are there," Brundage said late in the Texas League season. "He has some power, a nice work ethic--I like his upside. He put in the work to improve enough (defensively) where I wouldn't rule out shortstop."Get Up, Stand Up
Itís been a long road to get to where he is now, a top prospect in the Mariners system. He grew up in Jamaica with his grandparents, since his father left him, his older brother and his mother when he was two. His mother, an athlete in her own right who was an avid tennis player and sprinter, moved to the U.S. to find work and came back to bring the two boys to Florida with her. Morse was five when he came to the States.
"My mother always wanted us to do things sports-related," Morse said. "She is the person in my life who I owe the most to for pushing me into all the sports I played."
He was best at football, where he was a standout prep quarterback garnering recruiting attention from the likes of North Carolina State. "Now that was weird," Morse said. "They wanted me to play wide receiver, so Iím out there running routes with Torry Holt. It was an awesome experience, but I donít regret the choice I made."
Morse credits playing quarterback for helping develop both his rifle arm, accuracy, and even his lateral and vertical movement.
"Heís definitely got the arm to play the position," said an NL scout. "Itís a 70 (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale). The thing that separates him is heís so easy in his actions. He moves well to either side and can make the accurate throw on the run."The Great Beyond
Morse is in the Fall League playing for the Peoria Javelinas primarily to work on defense, particularly improving his footwork and solidifying his fundamentals.
"We want to get him to work within the structure of playing the position," hitting coach Torey Lovullo said, "but he improvises so well that we donít want to confine him or take any of that improvisation away."
At the plate, Morseís goal is to hit .360 this fall. He came into Monday's play hitting .318 in 66 at-bats, after hitting .281-17-71 overall in 2004 at Double-A.
"Iím here focusing on defense, but Iím not being one-dimensional at all," Morse said. "I havenít hit for the power I know I can hit for, but really, Iíve never felt more energized. Iíve never felt better."
And that feeling will only get better in the offseason when he returns to South Florida. Over the past few winters, Morse has gone through workouts and hitting drills with some impressive names, all of them good friends and firm Morse believers like Dmitri Young, Juan Pierre, and Charles Johnson among others.
"Iím tight with all those guys and although Iím the only minor league guy, they treat me like Iím an eight-year (big league) guy," Morse said. "Itís just awesome to have those guys in your corner. They hire a guy to throw BP, we hit all day and they always pick up the tab. I just love being around those guys. Weíre like brothers."
Young is coming to town next week to help Morse with his swing, which he said has become a little "funky" the last few weeks this fall.
"I told him we were playing against his brother (Delmon) next weekend," Morse said. "But he just told me it was all good. We have work to do."
ē Phoenix catcher Mike Napoli (Angels) might not have passed Jeff Mathis on the organizational depth chart, but he is improving his stock in the AFL. Friday, Napoli caught back-to-back would-be basestealers; first Rickie Weeks (Brewers), then Tommy Whiteman (Astros). He also showed off some power, hitting a two-run homer off righthander Jared Gothreaux (Astros) after Ryan Howard (Phillies) legged out a double down the left-field line, sliding headfirst into the bag.
ē Speaking of Gothreaux, it wasnít all bad. In fact, the Napoli homer was one of the few mistakes he made. Gothreaux, who relies on a plus slider, is in the AFL off a 9-7, 3.96 year at Double-A Round Rock. The next time he faced Howard, Gothreaux got behind 2-0, missing with two fastballs. He came back with two straight changeups for strikes, the second of which Howard swung through and missed. He then broke out the slider, which broke down and away from the free-swinging slugger.
ē Grand Canyon righthander Scott Baker (Twins) had great stuff on Saturday night against Mesa. Bakerís fastball was in the 90-91 mph range, touching 93 with good life, breaking back to the inside against righthanders. His secondary stuff was impressive as well, featuring a 75-76 mph curveball and 81 mph changeup. His curve was perhaps his most dominant offering of the night, breaking out several backdoor benders against lefthanders and getting Delmon Young (Devil Rays) to swing through a 74 mph curve to end the first inning.
ē Grand Canyon outfielder Curtis Granderson (Tigers), one of the best hitters in the minors during last seasonís second half, has been showing off one of his best tools this fall: his speed. Granderson was clocked between 4.1 and 4.3 seconds to first base in four at-bats Saturday.
ē Scouts were debating which outfielder has the best arm in the Fall League this year. Young, Jeff Francoeur (Braves), Brian Anderson (White Sox), Reid Gorecki (Cardinals) and Juan Serensio (Rangers) are the top right fielders in the league. "It comes down between Anderson and Francoeur for me," said an AL scout. "And, if Iím going based solely on accuracy, Iíd have to go Anderson. But Francoeurís release and pure power arm is a tick better out of all those guys."