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 Industriales.
?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 practice.
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.?