SI Vault
 
Arrival of an Angel
BEN REITER
March 22, 2010
After his breakthrough 2009 season, it might feel like slugger Kendry Morales was an overnight success. But for the best hitter to come out of Cuba in a generation, the road to Anaheim was anything but short and easy
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 22, 2010

Arrival Of An Angel

After his breakthrough 2009 season, it might feel like slugger Kendry Morales was an overnight success. But for the best hitter to come out of Cuba in a generation, the road to Anaheim was anything but short and easy

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3

Morales was a fixture on Bane's radar by the summer of 2001, when the young Cuban used a bat held together with duct tape to hit an opposite-field home run off a 17-year-old American lefty named Scott Kazmir in the Junior Pan American Championships in Camagüey, Cuba. Morales, a corner infielder and outfielder, also pitched a complete game in the tournament, blowing away hitters with a 92-mph fastball. By October 2003, when Bane became the Angels' director of scouting—and by which time Morales had become the first teenager to start for Cuba's national team since the great Omar Linares in the 1980s and had hit .348 with 30 home runs and 124 RBIs in 146 games over two seasons with the Industriales—Eddie Bane was in love.

They called it a resort, and it had the all-inclusive meal plan of a resort, but it wasn't the Ritz-Carlton. Eddie Bane likes Ritz-Carltons. After Morales's defection one of his then representatives, a Canadian accountant named John DiManno, set up camp in the Dominican Republic so that Morales could work out and, more important, establish residency, which would allow him to avoid entering the major league draft and instead sign a lucrative contract as an international free agent. So Eddie Bane, who will never commit to a player until he's watched him in person, spoken with him and looked him in the eyes, traveled to the Dominican Republic in the fall of 2004. He and a few of his scouts spent five days with Morales at a no-frills beachfront hotel near the Angels' developmental academy in San Pedro de Macorís.

"An agent, in general, wants to smother his client and not let you see things, and I really don't understand why, because we want to like the player," says Bane. "Kendry's representatives wanted to be a mother hen to him. We wanted to see Kendry work without those guys." Bane and his men ate every meal with Morales. They sat out on the beach and laughed together at the antics of an Argentine film crew. And they watched him play. Bane graded Morales as a 70-to-80 hitter—80 is the top of the scouting scale—with 70-to-80 power. At the end of the week Bane reported back to G.M. Bill Stoneman that he had to have him. Other clubs—"the same suspects as normal," Bane says, meaning the Yankees and the Red Sox and other big-spending teams—were interested, but all had reservations. "I heard that the offers weren't coming through like they should have, and I was shocked and amazed," Bane says. Other clubs thought Morales would never hit lefthanded pitching. They thought he was fat. They were wary of Cuban hitters; while pitchers like Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez had excelled in the majors after defecting, it had been years since a Cuba-developed position player had made an impact in the United States, longer still since the days of Tony Oliva and Tony Perez and Bert Campaneris. "You started hearing that they didn't think he had a position he could play, all this and that," Bane says. "I saw a different player."

After nearly a month of dickering, Stoneman signed Morales to an incentive-laden six-year, $4.5 million deal, with a $3 million signing bonus, on Dec. 1, 2004. The Angels hoped he'd be able to join them for spring training in Tempe the following February, but it took more than five months of paper shuffling for him to be cleared to work in the U.S. He finally debuted for Class A Rancho Cucamonga on May 21. With his first swing—his first in a competitive game in more than a year and a half—he sent a ball high and deep toward right center. The ball cleared the scoreboard before Morales made a move toward first base. "He threw the bat down on top of home plate and watched it go, did a real circus trip around the bases," says Bane. "I remember Bruce Hines, our minor league coordinator at the time, said, 'Uh-oh, we're in trouble here.'"

In Cuba, Morales explains, fans expect a slugger to put on a show. But in the U.S. such displays tend to get someone beaned. "Well, not me, but the guy behind me," Morales says with a chuckle. "I was adjusting. I didn't know how the system here works."

Learning to quicken his home run trot was just one adjustment Morales would have to make. The Angels like even their sushi-grade prospects cooked through, and Morales, says manager Mike Scioscia, "was as raw as any player that I'd seen come into minor league baseball."

"Everyone could see the extraordinary talent he had," Scioscia continues, "but Baseball 101, it was not there. In everything from baserunning—his secondary lead was not even there—to positioning himself in the field. Kendry had just played baseball, and probably they'd just let him swing the bat. He had to learn to play the whole game."

There was much to learn off the field as well. Morales, who had spent his first 20 years in a land of scarcity, suddenly found himself in a land of plenty, and with dollars to spend. Tony Reagins, then the Angels' director of player development and since 2007 the club's G.M., recalls taking Morales shopping at Los Angeles's tony Beverly Center in 2005 for clothes and a cellphone. "He had an extremely limited wardrobe," Reagins says. "Like, jeans and a shirt." Food, never abundant in Cuba, was now available, cheap, on every street corner, and every clubhouse had buckets of candy and freezers full of ice cream. In his early days with the Angels, Morales was rarely seen without a glove on his left hand and a Drumstick cone in his right. "With his body type"—6'1", 225 pounds and barrel-chested, nearly as thick sternum to spine as side to side—"he can put on weight quickly if he doesn't watch it," says Reagins. "As he's matured, as he's gotten more accustomed to the surroundings, he's improved in all areas. Not just on the baseball field. In all areas."

Now? "You touch him, he's like a rock," reports teammate Torii Hunter. "Oh, my god."

The Angels brought Morales up to Anaheim for stints in 2006, '07 and '08—he hit .249 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 377 total at bats during those seasons—but they really wanted him down on the farm, where he could continue to develop into the player they thought he'd become. With Casey Kotchman and then, briefly, Mark Teixeira manning first base, they didn't have a place for him, anyway. His teammates knew what he could do ("When I saw him take batting practice for the first time, in 2008, and they told me he didn't have a starting job and was going to Triple A, I was like, What!" says Hunter), even if scouts and statistical experts still had their doubts. As late as 2008 the writers of Baseball Prospectus opined, "In the long term, Morales may end up being just a very good pinch hitter."

Continue Story
1 2 3