Winter league report: Kendry Morales
In many ways, Kendry Morales had his best -- and longest -- season as a pro last summer.
He played a career-high 78 games for Triple A Salt Lake City, batting .341 with 15 homers and a lifetime-best 64 RBI. In 27 games spread over four separate stays with the Angels, he compiled a .393 slugging percentage, earning a spot on the team's post-season roster, and batted .500.
So what did Morales do to celebrate? He signed up to play winter ball, and he's hardly missed a beat, hitting .455 with five homers in 12 games for Gigantes del Cibao, who began the week atop the Dominican League standings.
"With guys like that, we wanted to get as much exposure as possible at different levels," said Tory Hernandez, the Angels' manager of baseball operations. "For Kendry, although he was with us at the end of the season, he didn't see a lot of at-bats."
The Angels have been keeping a close eye on the at-bats Morales is getting in the Dominican because his performance there could play a role in determining how hard they push to resign free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira.
After all, that was the position the Angels hoped to some day turn over to Morales when they signed the Cuban defector four years ago. But despite batting .341 combined in his last two minor-league seasons, Morales has struggled in the majors, hitting just .249 with 45 RBI in 127 games.
Once the Angels have seen enough this winter, they may shut Morales down to keep him fresh for the start of spring training. Or maybe not.
"We're not ready to make that call yet," Hernandez said of Morales, who played a full season for Gigantes last winter as well. "If these guys continue to have success, they might want to keep playing."
Three other Angel infielders are playing in the Dominican this winter, with Sean Rodriguez ranking among the league leaders with six homers in 17 games for Gigantes and Erick Aybar fourth in the league in hitting at .377 after 16 games with Licey. But Brandon Wood, who has struggled mightily with Estrellas de Oriente -- striking out a third of the time and batting just .167 through 48 at-bats -- was released by the club on Monday.
"There's always a concern when a guy's hitting .167, no matter what league," Hernandez said. "We want to see a guy have success."
Morales and Rodriguez are playing for Venezuelan-born manager Luis Dorante, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen coach who has been both a successful minor-league manager and a former Manager of the Year in the Venezuelan League. He helped guide Gigantes to the Dominican League playoffs last year and, at the age of 40, is a guy many clubs might soon be adding to their short list of prospective managers
or bench coaches.
ESPN Deportes will televise Dominican League games featuring Aybar and his Licey Tigers this Friday and Sunday afternoon.
Richard Hidalgo, who appeared on his way to a brilliant major-league career with the Astros after batting better than .300 in three of his first four major-league seasons and leading the National League in slugging percentage in 2000, is playing well for Magallanes, hitting .361 and ranking second in the league with 39 hits after 28 games.
Hidalgo's big-league career went into a tailspin in 2004, a season after he was shot in the arm during a botched robbery attempt in Venezuela. In 2007, after two poor seasons with the Mets and Rangers, Hidalgo signed a minor-league contract with the Astros, but Houston released him before spring training had ended.
Then, after batting .261 in 30 games last season with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, he appeared done, announcing his retirement for the second time in two years. And while it's unlikely he's going to win an invitation back to the U.S. no matter what he does this winter, at 33, he's proving he still has a little left after all.
With a slightly -- but only slightly --- better chance of returning to the majors in Hidalgo's Magallanes' teammate Jay Gibbons, who has six homers through 23 games despite hitting just .257. Gibbons, 31, who played at Cal State Los Angeles, hit .260 in parts of seven seasons with the Baltimore Orioles before being released last spring after being named in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs. Following a short stay in the Atlantic League, Gibbons eventually hooked on with the Brewers, batting .312 in 29 games at Triple A before being let go after the season.
Eduardo Perez is finding out that the game is more difficult to figure out from the dugout than it is from the studio. The ESPN analyst has lost five of his first seven games as manager at Ponce. But then again, Perez, a former big-leaguer and the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez, wasn't officially given the job until the day before the season started, so a little on-the-job training was to be expected.
Performing far better than expected, at least so far, is Santurce pitcher Alay Soler, a Cuban defector who signed a $2.8-million contract with the Mets four years ago only to wind up pitching himself out of organized baseball following dismal stays with New York, Pittsburgh and Houston.
The 29-year-old former Cuban national team star, who announced his retirement in September, has a 1.88 ERA through three starts and a league-leading 14 1/3 innings although he has yet to earn a decision.
Dodger prospect Ivan De Jesus, who hit just 12 home runs in 428 career minor-league games, is tied for the Puerto Rican League lead with three homers in nine games for Carolina. He's also batting .351 and ranks among the league leaders in hits (13), runs (10) and RBI (9).
Danny Graves was a two-time National League All-Star who saved as many as 30 games four times between 2000 and 2004. But he hasn't pitched in the majors in two seasons and he dropped all the way down to the Single-A Florida State League last summer in an attempt to rebuild his career with the Minnesota Twins.
He apparently hasn't given up, since he's spending the winter in Mexico. In nine relief appearances with Navojoa, Graves has pitched 9 2/3 innings, posting a 4.66 ERA and earned a save. But those numbers pale in comparison to the unbelievable stats being put up by former Texas Rangers' farmhand Jorge Vasquez, who is 1-0 with 15 saves and 24 strikeouts in 19 games (18 innings) for league-leading Los Mochis.
Vasquez, a 30-year-old right-hander from the Dominican, made just nine big-league appearances in a seven-year professional career in the U.S.. He pitched last summer for Monterrey of the Mexican summer league.
-- Kevin Baxter
Photo (top): Kendry Morales, right, celebrates with Angels teammate Mike Napoli after hitting a home run against the Rangers on Sept. 19 in Arlington, Texas. Credit: Matt Slocum / Associated Press
Photo (middle): Richard Hidalgo poses during the Houston Astros' media day in February 2003. Credit: Rick Stewart / Getty Images
Photo (bottom): Danny Graves is shown in a 2003 file photo. Credit: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images