There's More to Kendrys Morales Than Meets the Eye
There's a whole lot more to like about Morales than a lot of fans were open to hearing back in November or December when Encarnacion remained unsigned.
Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Back in November, when the Blue Jays rushed to the front of an empty queue in order to sign Kendrys Morales, quashing all but the most delusional hopes that the club would reunite with beloved DH Edwin Encarnacion, fans were in no mood to hear of all the positive things their new cleanup hitter would bring.
As the winter progressed, with Edwin languishing on the free-agent market and it becoming clearer by the day that the Blue Jays had made a franchise-defining misstep by refusing to wait, that mood didn't exactly change. At least for those long and bitter months, Morales seemed like he might forever stay "Not Edwin," a pariah doomed simply because he took the money the Jays put in front of him.
You can't blame fans for having difficulty getting over Edwin. His smile was as big as his bat. He was always loose, exuberant, always having fun on the field. "He hang it, I bang it," he famously said after a 2014 walk-off home run, which was as perfect an Edwin quote as you were likely ever to get, and one of the rare ones in English. He was polite in his manner, but ferocious when he needed to be—a contrast perfectly fitting to the wild-eyed fans in MLB's lone Canadian outpost.
More than Jose Bautista, more than Josh Donaldson, I think Edwin embodied the true spirit of baseball's resurgence in Toronto. It's hard not to have fun when Edwin is in the building, bounding around the bases with an imaginary parrot on his arm, or accidentally launching his bat into the 14th row.
These are not easy shoes to fill.
But the winter is now behind us. Morales is here, Edwin isn't. Spring is the time for great baseball optimism. And when it comes to Kendrys, there is actually a whole lot more to like than a lot of fans were open to hearing back in November or December.
Among fans Morales is probably best known for two of the lowest moments of his on-field career: missing nearly two full years due to a freak ankle injury caused by jumping onto home plate in celebration of a walk-off grand slam, and his disastrous 2014 season, which was the result of he and his former agent, Scott Boras, rejecting a qualifying offer from the Mariners the previous winter, failing to find a team willing to give up a compensatory draft pick to sign him, forcing him to sit out until after the draft in June.
But there's so much more to Morales than those two escapades. For example: the 13 escapades it took before he managed to get out of his native Cuba.
Morales was briefly an icon in Cuba. Wright Thompson, then of the Kansas City Star, wrote the definitive profile of The Best Player You'll Never See, back in March 2003—before the jail time and escape attempts—as 19-year-old Kendrys and his family were still getting used to living in a space bigger than their old one-room apartment in Havana, and Cuba still struggled to find its footing in a post-Soviet world.
Thompson revisited that piece in 2009 for ESPN, making sure to inject more of himself into the story, but also adding what had happened next to the man many thought had all the makings of Cuba's greatest ever ballplayer.
"Undone by their own paranoia, the baseball authorities suspected Kendry of talking to an agent. They called him home from an international trip in November 2003, and he never played for the national team again. Only problem, he hadn't met with an agent.
"That didn't matter. He had to leave. He tried to defect and ended up in a Cuban jail. Twelve times he tried, until he finally made the 90-mile journey, on a tiny raft with 18 other people dreaming of a new life."
"In the past, the escape was not coordinated correctly," Morales told the Star in 2015. "So the 13th time, everything worked out perfectly." According to reporter Vahe Gregorian, "this was about as much detail as Morales was comfortable revealing."
It's what this all—the refusal to give up and the willingness to live in exile—reveals about Morales that's most striking. Royals GM Dayton Moore put it bluntly in Gregorian's piece: it "tells you he's determined," he said, adding that "Kendrys Morales is an absolute professional. He's a very serious baseball person."
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has already found this out first hand.
"He was more than happy to hop on a bus the other day and go down to [the Pirates' minor-league complex in] Bradenton," an impressed John Gibbons told Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet over the weekend. "That's kind of rare—rare around here, anyways."
What's not rare are tales of Morales's passion for the game. In yet another Kansas City Star piece, Rustin Dodd explains that Kendrys' routine during the Royals 2015 championship season was to show up at the ballpark around noon, a full two hours before many teammates, and cue up an unusually old-school playlist for a big league clubhouse—the likes of Elvis and Frank Sinatra, according to KC manager Ned Yost. There's a lot to like here! And in the fact that Dodd is also sure to call Morales a "veteran in the clubhouse" who "offered a touch of swagger."
Of course, Morales will ultimately be judged mostly on how he performs. Melvin Upton and Justin Smoak could have 70 harrowing near-escapes from Cuba between them and they'd still just be Melvin Upton and Justin Smoak, y'know? But there is hope for Morales in this regard, as well.
He's old and he's slow and he's almost always going to DH, so holistic metrics like WAR probably aren't going to like him very much, but Morales takes a decent amount of walks, doesn't strike out a ton, and hits the ball very hard. According to Statcast, his average exit velocity was 11th highest in baseball in 2016, and, per plate appearance, his percentage of "barrels" (balls in play struck at an exit velocity and launch angle that produces a batting average of at least .500 and a slugging percentage of 1.500 or better) was in the top 30—even with Encarnacion's rate, and slightly ahead of Donaldson's.
These newfangled numbers aren't the be-all, end-all, but they speak well to the way Morales swings the bat, and suggest that very good things could be in store in a more hitter-friendly environment, like Rogers Centre.
Jays fans can feel some optimism even without using exit velocities and launch angles: though Morales posted an uninspiring 110 wRC+ in 2016, he slumped through the season's first two months, and put up a 135 mark from June 1 onward. Encarnacion's season wRC+? 134.
Morales has been around long enough, and been through enough, that he probably doesn't feel he needs to worry about anybody else's shoes. If he hits the way he's capable, Jays fans won't, either. They may even grow to appreciate just how special a player they've got.