Kendrys Morales goes from raft to Royals’ slugger


JUNE 2015 – Some take the fast track to the big leagues, like Yordano “Ace” Ventura and Eric Hosmer, who make their Kansas City Royals debuts at age 21.

Others, like Paulo Orlando (nine years) and Yohan Pino (11 years) trek through the minors for seemingly a baseball eternity before ever trying on a major league jersey.

Kendrys Morales took a more arduous and dangerous path to reach the majors. It included a dozen raft trips and jail time. Morales is from Cuba and communist dictator Fidel Castro prefers his baseball players to remain on the island, not defect to the United States.

In 2002, Morales became the first teenager to make the Cuban national team in nearly 20 years. He batted cleanup and in 2003 World Cup hit a grand slam against Taiwan to beat Taiwan 6-3. The previous day he homered to drive in the winning runs against Brazil.

But in 2003, Morales went from star to being banned. He was shipped back to Cubs during the Olympic qualifying at Panama for supposedly making a contact with an agent. Morales denied it, but the Castro-controlled country did not want their young star player to desert.

After that Morales said he just wanted to flee Cuba. He tried several times, but without success and occasionally would land in jail for his efforts. In June 2004, the raft Morales was aboard landed on the south Florida shores, his 12th attempt to get off Cuba.

The Los Angeles Angels won a bidding war for Morales’ rights, signing him in December 2004. By May 23, 2006 he was in the majors, going 3 for 5 with a home run and two RBIs in his debut.

In 2009, he was a MVP candidate, finishing fifth in the balloting, after hitting .305 with 34 home runs, 108 RBIs, 43 doubles, slugging .569 and a .924 OPS.

He started off 2010 with similar numbers, 11 home runs, 39 RBIs and 94 total bases when his season ended with one of the strangest baseball injuries on May 29. He hit a walk-off grand slam against Seattle, but suffered a fractured lower left leg during the plate celebrations.

He had a second procedure on the leg in 2011 and did not play that season. In 2012, he returned to hit .273 with 22 HR and 73 RBIs. He was traded after the season to the Seattle Mariners for left-hander Jason Vargas, who is now a Kansas City Royals teammate.

After leading the Mariners in batting average, hits, doubles, RBIs, multi-hit games and extra-base hits, Morales became a free agent after the 2013 season and in no-man’s land. Clubs were reluctant to forfeit a first-round draft pick for signing Morales.

He had to wait until after the draft before the Twins signed him on June 8, 2014. With no spring training, it was a disastrous year for Morales. He was traded to Seattle in July and between the two stops, combined to hit .218 with 20 doubles, eight home runs and 42 RBIs in 98 games.

This year Morales is a leading candidate to be the Comeback Player of the Year. Entering June, Morales is among the American League leaders in RBIs, runs scored, doubles and hitting with runners in scoring position, while hitting north of .300.

The Royals signed Morales to a two-year contract last December for $17 million — $6.5 million this year and $9 million in 2016 with a $1.5 million buyout after next season if an $11 million option is not picked up.

Morales shed 12 pounds when he reported to spring training, in shape and out to prove 2014 was a fluke with no time to get his timing down before playing.

“Eat less,” Morales said and laughed was his key to losing weight.

The Royals signed Morales, a run-producing switch-hitter who turns 32 on June 20, after long-time designated hitter Billy Butler bolted to sign a three year contract with the Oakland Athletics.

“God gave Billy Butler the ability to hit,” Morales said through an interpreter. “That’s his forte. I’m going to do whatever I’m capable of doing.”

Manager Ned Yost loves writing Morales’ name in the middle of his lineup, primarily in the fifth slot.

“He was just about as good as they come in the American League before he broke his leg,” Yost said. “And coming back from the rehab and a short season last year, no spring training, he was put right into the fire.”

With a full spring training and no injuries, Morales has been a boost to the Royals’ lineup.

“He’s almost Billy-esque,” Yost said. “He steps up to the plate and you feel like he’s going to drive the ball somewhere.”

There are no lingering effects from the broken leg.

“I feel great because it’s been almost four years since the operation,” Morales said. “Losing the weight is helpful, but I don’t want to lose too much weight because of my body structure. It makes a big difference coming into spring training than waiting halfway through the year to play ball.”

Article by Alan Eskew

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