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Kendry Morales has a first-class burden

The Angels are counting on him to live up to his potential at first base; if he doesn't there are no real alternatives to replace him.

February 19, 2009|Mike DiGiovanna

TEMPE, ARIZ. — It was one at-bat, one of more than 1,500 he has had as a professional, but to the Angels it seemed like so much more.

With the score tied in Game 4 of the American League division series against Boston last Oct. 6, Kendry Morales smacked Justin Masterson's 2-and-2 pitch for a pinch-hit double off the left-center-field wall in Fenway Park to lead off the ninth inning.

Morales was then run for by Reggie Willits, who was eventually tagged out in a rundown after Erick Aybar's failed suicide-squeeze attempt, and the Angels lost the game and series.

But Morales' opposite-field hit left a lasting impression on the Angels, who hope it foreshadows what is to come.

"He's tough in the batter's box, and that at-bat is an indication of his talent," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Two strikes, he cut his swing down and hit a bullet to left-center. A lot of his growth has been understanding that he has the ability to use the whole field.

"We want Kendry to get into his game, to feel confident with what he can do. He's going to fit in very well."

He better.

The Angels ignored their aversion to rental players and traded first baseman Casey Kotchman to Atlanta for slugger Mark Teixeira last July because they felt Morales, 25, would be ready to take over if Teixeira left as a free agent.

Teixeira spurned the Angels to sign with the Yankees, and now the first base job belongs to Morales with virtually no safety net.

If Morales pulls a Dallas McPherson, the slugging prospect who flopped after being handed the third base job in 2005, the only in-house options at first base are Robb Quinlan, who is more of a utility player, and Juan Rivera, an outfielder who has played only one game at first base.

"I feel like I'm ready," Morales, a Cuban native, said through an interpreter Wednesday. "The time I spent in winter ball, the time I've been up here, has prepared me enough. Becoming a productive every-day player is within reach if I work hard."

Because of their lack of depth at first, Morales, a .249 hitter with 12 home runs in 377 big-league at-bats, will be given a longer leash than most first-year starters. If he struggles early, he will probably remain in the lineup.

But the Angels have World Series aspirations and need production throughout the order, so there will be a limit to their patience.

"Every youngster coming up has to get into a comfort level, but you still have to be contributing," Scioscia said. "You want guys to play with a relaxed sense of urgency. More than him worrying about what an 0 for 12 is going to mean for his playing time, we want him to get into his game, let his talent surface as quickly as it can."

Morales has some big shoes -- and gloves -- to fill. Teixeira is a two-time Gold Glove winner, Kotchman is a Gold Glove-caliber defender, and Morales is not in their class defensively.

But the 6-foot-1, 225-pound switch-hitter has come a long way since his first big league camp in 2006, when he looked lost around the bag.

"I had brick hands," said Morales, who played mostly outfield and third base for the Cuban national team. "I had to get used to the position. I spent a lot of time in the back fields working with Scioscia, Alfredo [Griffin, Angels first base coach] and Preston [Gomez, former special assistant]. They gave me ideas. I also took a lot of ground balls at the complex in the Dominican Republic."

Scioscia said Morales has "improved tenfold from the time we signed him," and Griffin thinks he will be a solid defender.

"His hands are a lot softer, and he moves surprisingly well," Griffin said. "He's still learning, but he can be a really good first baseman."

The Angels believe Morales can hit 20 home runs or more and drive in 80-90 runs. He hit .324 (24 for 74) while getting regular playing time in the final two months of 2007 and had a huge winter in the Dominican, batting .387 with 15 homers and 45 RBIs in 48 games.

"We're not going to focus on how many home runs or RBIs he's going to have," Scioscia said, "but I think he has the potential to open some eyes in 600 at-bats."

He certainly did during that one at-bat last October.

"That had more to do with the mental challenge of playing in the big leagues," Morales said. "I can look at it and say that, mentally, I was ready to give a good at-bat.

"Whether that translates into more success, I don't know, but I understand more about the pressure of those situations because of the mental preparation I had, and that should help in the future."

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Morales at a glance

A look at Kendry Morales' offensive numbers with the Angels:

*--* YEAR G AB R H 2B HR RBI BB SO AVG OB% 2006 57 197 21 46 10 5 22 17 28 234 293 2007 43 119 12 35 10 4 15 6 21 294 333 2008 27 61 7 13 2 3 8 4 7 213 273 TOTALS 127 377 40 94 22 12 45 27 56 249 302 *--*

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