Kendry Morales: Taking On All Challenges

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.’"The Los Angeles Angels weren’™t panicking when
Kendry Morales went hitless in his first three games with Double-A
Arkansas this spring.

Morales’™ performance in Cuba and in 22 games with high Class A Rancho Cucamonga had justly earned him a bit of a grace period.

“He’™s probably pressing a little bit,” Angels general manager Bill
Stoneman said after Morales started 0-for-11 at Arkansas. “This guy’™s a
good hitter.”

The switch-hitting Morales first showed his prowess with the Havana
Industriales in Cuba’™s Serie Nacional and with the powerful Cuban
national team. But many Cuban players have performed well for their
home country only to fall short of expectations after they come to the
United States’"particularly position players.

If there were fears Morales couldn’™t cut it in affiliated American
baseball, however, he assuaged them when he hit .344-5-17 in 90 at-bats
as Rancho Cucamonga’™s first baseman.

“He was swinging the bat well for both average and power,” Stoneman
said of Morales’™ swift promotion. “We just said, ‘˜Look, now is the time
to give him a greater challenge.’™ “

Morales agreed he was ready for the test.

“I feel confident I’™m ready. I’™m seeing the ball well. I think I can
handle Double-A,” the 22-year-old Morales said through his agent and
interpreter John Dimanno before his first Texas League start. He was
11-for-50 for the Travelers with a three-homer game against San Antonio.

Banned In Cuba

Whether changing positions or changing countries, few challenges have slowed him.

In his Cuban amateur career Morales batted .330-37-170 with 60
doubles and five triples. With the Industriales in the 2001-2002
season, Morales broke rookie records with 114 hits, 82 RBIs, 21 home
runs, 46 extra-base hits and 60 runs.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder is a former Cuban junior team MVP and
national all-star who, on top of his hitting aptitude, was also a
pitcher and threw a shutout in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in a
qualifying tournament for the World Junior Championship in 1999.

Despite heroics like a grand slam that helped Cuba to a 6-3 victory
over Taiwan in the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup in Havana (Cuba
went on to win the gold medal), however, he soon became a persona non
grata because he was deemed a defection risk. He was banned from the
team and did not play in Cuba in 2004, after he was pulled off the
field during an Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama in 2003.

Cuban officials feared he would defect just as more than 100 of
their stars have since 1991, when pitcher Rene Arocha bolted during a
flight layover in Miami. Morales said his government forced him to do
exactly what it was trying to prevent.

“They stopped my career. They wouldn’™t let me play baseball
anymore,” said Morales, who finally defected after eight unsuccessful
attempts on June 8, 2004. Morales established residency in the
Dominican Republic, becoming a free agent and showcasing his talents
for various major league teams.

The Angels signed him to a six-year major league contract with a $3
million bonus, with the potential to be worth as much as $10 million
overall. That’™s a bargain for a potential impact big leaguer, but quite
a hefty raise from the five dollars Morales earned monthly with the

“He already came with a lot of experience,” Stoneman said. “The one
thing he didn’™t have when we got him was recent, competitive activity
of the type he’™s now getting. There was a hiatus there from the time he
defected until the point we signed him, where he really was only going
to workouts and he really wasn’™t with a program as such.”

After signing with the Angels, Morales played some winter ball in
the Dominican, his first real game experience since he was banned in
Cuba. His first impression of American professional baseball is similar
to that of many international players.

“Here there are more quality pitchers than there are in Cuba,” he said. “They have more velocity here than they do in Cuba.”

Finding A Spot

Once Morales gets settled in the United States, the Angels will
worry more about his long-term defensive home. It may not be at first,
where Darin Erstad holds the job in Anaheim and prospect Casey
Kotchman, though struggling at Triple-A, is waiting in the wings.
Stoneman has seen Morales play third, but the Angels are giving Dallas
McPherson every chance to succeed there.

“It would be premature to answer that question,” Stoneman said. “I
think he’™s played more first recently than any other position. I think
he looks comfortable at first base and his hands worked well. He looked
comfortable at third too, maybe because his hands work well and he’™s
got a strong arm.”

Morales’™ arrival gave Arkansas an infield thick with prospects, as
he joined shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Alberto Callaspo,
both of whom are Texas League all-stars. He one-upped them, however, by
earning selection to the Futures Game.

Morales also gives Arkansas six switch-hitters at the top of the
order, and manager Tom Gamboa welcomed the extra flexibility. “The ball
jumps off his bat,” Gamboa said after watching Morales’™ first batting

Morales ended his Double-A drought at 0-for-12 when he hit a three-run double at Wichita, part of a 2-for-4 evening.

If the Angels weren’™t worrying, then neither was Morales. He figured the hits would start coming like they have everywhere else.

“I don’™t find it difficult,” Morales said of the jump to Double-A.
“(The Angels) brought me here, I have to do my work and improve and
move on.”

Todd Traub covers the Texas League for the Arkansas Democrat.