Kendrys Morales shrugged when asked if he was frustrated not to be signed so late into spring training.
“Nothing I can do,” said Morales after a workout at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla., late last week. “I don’t understand, but I’m just waiting for something.”
For five hours a day and six days a week, Morales goes through spring training simulation with fellow Scott Boras client Stephen Drew. They work out together at the small Catholic university in a quiet setting on the modest baseball field.
Morales has averaged .280 with 27 homers and 90 RBIs with an .813 on-base percentage in his career. In 2013, the switch-hitting designated hitter/first baseman hit .277 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs in one of the worst ballparks for hitters — Safeco Field.
“He’s a low-key guy like me,” Drew said of Morales. “We don’t talk too much about what we’re going through. We talk about other things mostly, but he’s been a good guy to work out with and go through this with.”
It is almost like baseball prison. Which of the two inmates will receive the first work furlough? Morales, who walks around in his Seattle gear from his one year with the Mariners, was asked whether he felt he would be back with his old team. Again, a shrug. Impossible to tell.
That a hitter of Morales’s ability and a shortstop of Drew’s ability are still out there is surprising. The draft-pick compensation has definitely been an issue, but both players turned down $14.1 million qualifying offers.
So far, under the new free agent system bargained for collectively, all 22 players receiving qualifying offers since 2012 have declined. Union executive director Tony Clark said he would like to reopen discussions on compensation, but that requires a process. The qualifying offer is based on the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball. Drew received the offer, meaning the Red Sox were willing to pay him that amount for one year to stay with the team. They also felt he was good enough to sign elsewhere, so they would receive draft-pick compensation.
It’s almost a game within the game.
Management takes somewhat of a risk by its willingness to outlay more than $14 million, but given the history of how players have responded, teams know the likelihood is the offer will be rejected. Any player who has waited six years for a big payday likely feels he can do better on a multiyear deal. To do anything else would mean the player has no faith in his ability.
It’s precisely what Drew thought. “I have to trust my talent,” he said.
Drew’s thinking was that he was one of the best offensive and defensive shortstops in the game last season, and while he had a poor postseason (6 for 54), he played shortstop on a World Series championship team that stressed defense.
In a few instances, that self-confidence —
Ervin Santana waited for an injury, to the Braves’ Kris Medlen, to sign a one year, $14.1 million deal. Outfielder Nelson Cruz, who had the double-whammy of past PED use, signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles. He has the distinction of becoming the first player who declined a qualifying offer and signed for less.
The Mets, the one team that has been on the fence on Drew, have their top pick (10th overall) protected by last year’s record. They are one of 10 teams this year that don’t have to surrender a first-round pick. The others are the Astros, Marlins, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, and Blue Jays. The issue is contract-related — the Mets would rather go with the cheaper Ruben Tejada.
Morales continues to fit Seattle because the Mariners need middle of the order protection for Robinson Cano, who signed a 10-year, $240 million deal during the offseason. Even Cano has publicly stated the need for another hitter. The Mariners would not have to forfeit a top pick to re-sign him, either. Morales also makes sense for the Brewers and Pirates, both of whom could use an upgrade at first base. Morales isn’t the greatest defender, but according to his former manager, Eric Wedge, Morales could handle the position while adding superb offense.
But the Pirates are protective of the 27th pick in the first round, even though this list of 27th picks since 2000 is underwhelming: Robert Stiehl, Alan Horne, Sergio Santos, Eric Duncan, Taylor Tankersley, Joey Devine, Jason Place, Rick Porcello, Carlos Gutierrez, Nick Franklin, Jesse Biddle, Robert Stephenson, Clint Coulter, and Phillip Ervin. For now, Drew and Morales will continue to work with ex-Red Sox first base coach Alex Ochoa.
“I think right now Stephen needs four or five games and he’d be ready,” Ochoa said. “He’s in good shape and doing a lot of stuff. He’s in good spirits, and he and Kendrys have fed off each other. Under the circumstances, both of them have had a good frame of mind.
“Kendrys is moving better than I’ve seen him move in a long time. He seems to be completely back from the gruesome leg injury he had a couple of years ago. Stephen had one of those awful injuries, too [ankle], but for him it’s like it never happened.”
QUITE A CATCH
In Hanigan, Rays have upgrade behind plate
The Rays have shored up their catching this season with one of the top defensive catchers — Andover native Ryan Hanigan.
Hanigan, who has one of the best throwing arms among catchers in the game, was part of a three-team deal (Arizona, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati) that landed the Rays Hanigan and reliever Heath Bell.
Now 33, Hanigan will take over the full-time duties from Jose Molina, who becomes the backup in one of the strongest defensive catching tandems in baseball.
Hanigan is a .262 career hitter with a .703 OPS, but last season, beset with an oblique injury out of camp and a wrist injury that kept him on the disabled list for 2½ months, he hit only .198.
“I was hurt for a long time,” Hanigan said. “I had a wrist problem that lingered for a long time. I tried to keep playing and stay off the DL, but I got to the point where I couldn’t play. I feel much better. I spent all winter getting my forearm and hands strong.”
After catching a strong Reds staff, Hanigan thinks the Rays staff might be better.
“I was excited about the trade,” he said. “They had a lot of desire to want me here. It’s exciting to catch a staff and a team that has established a winning atmosphere for years now. I feel I can help the younger pitchers and bring them along.”
Hanigan spent the winter watching video of his new pitching staff and he feels he knows all of the starters very well.
He said he’s taken great pride in becoming one of the best receivers.
“I take a lot of pride in my craft. I’d say I really analyze what I do. I’m pretty flexible with my hips so I can get pretty low and do some things physically that maybe a lot of guys don’t feel comfortable with,” he said.
Hanigan is also a master at stealing pitches, getting strike calls for his pitchers because of his positioning and framing of pitches.
“I’m not trying to steal a bunch of pitches but maybe expand the zone a little bit and maybe get some calls that might be a little borderline and really establish that you’re not going to make the umpire look bad if you lose a call,” he said. “That’s a huge part of the game — the difference between 2-1 or 1-2 is huge. That part of the game has always been so important to me. I’m going to war with my pitcher, so I’m trying to get him anything I can.”
It’s the mental aspect of baseball at which Hanigan excels, which is why he admired former Reds teammate Bronson Arroyo.
“He’s going to take the ball if he has a broken leg,” Hanigan said. “He’ll throw 47 curveballs in a row if that’s all he’s got that day. He can throw a curveball right to the corner, up and in, drop down with a sweeper change, all of it. You can’t sit on anything. It’s a chess game for him and he’s figured out a delivery, a tempo. It’s deceptive, all of it, and it all works to his advantage.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Tracy McGrady, a former NBA All-Star, will begin spring training with the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters of the Atlantic League on April 14. It’s full steam ahead, according to team executive Deacon Jones, a longtime scout. “The biggest thing is to build up arm strength,” said Jones. “He has a live arm and a fresh arm. He has a very good slider with great definition to it. We’re going into it looking at him as a reliever. We’ll see where it goes. I’ve asked him on a few occasions, ‘Are you committed to this?’ I asked his wife, as well. They are committed to making this happen. He’s a great athlete. He’s got those long fingers to grip the ball like J.R. Richard.” The pay: $3,000 per month. McGrady made $163 million playing basketball. It’s not about the money.
2. A new book on Shane Victorino is coming out: “The Flyin’ Hawaiian,” published by Triumph Books and written by Alan Maimon.
3. Red Sox catching prospect Christian Vazquez said that he’s made improvements framing pitches, which he learned from Rays catcher Jose Molina this offseason, and has been helped by playing winter ball in Puerto Rico.
4. There are scouts and front office people who feel the best fit for Stephen Drew is the Yankees. With the short porch for a lefthanded pull hitter “he could hit 20 home runs there,” said one American League East adviser. With Derek Jeter retiring after this season and the injury-plagued Brian Roberts at second base, the feeling is they could get Drew at-bats at shortstop, DH, and second base, and then have him take over shortstop next season. One major concern for the Yankees has to be the range of their infield, which Drew could improve.
5. More than 300 items from Johnny Pesky’s baseball career are up for auction. Hunt Auctions is conducting it. Pesky’s family has much of Pesky’s memorabilia for sale, including several of his Red Sox rings dating to the 1940s right up to 2007. There are quite a few Ted Williams items. A public auction will be held April 12 at 12 p.m. at Fenway Park. While some comments have come in expressing sadness, it’s not unusual for the families of players from that era to sell things off as family needs mount over time.
6. Heard many complaints this season about major traffic problems getting into and out of JetBlue Park. No solution yet after three years of traffic-pattern data. Also, I’ve never seen so many cones and ropes in my life.
Updates on nine
1. Jose Iglesias, SS, Tigers — He has gone through quite an ordeal dealing with painful shin splints since he was traded from the Red Sox. Iglesias played through it in Boston, but since going to Detroit, the pain has been unbearable. Iglesias will likely start the season on the disabled list and is seeing a specialist to see if there’s something to alleviate the pain.
2. Francisco Cervelli, C, Yankees — There appears to be a market for Cervelli on the trade front as the Yankees try to whittle their catching options and add a reliever. Austin Romine could serve as Brian McCann’s backup. But the Yankees are a little cautious on dealing Cervelli since they believe he’s the best option to start if something should happen to McCann.
3. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, RHP, Phillies — Things couldn’t be going worse for the Phillies. After internal discussions about Ervin Santana failed to yield any substantive interest in the free agent righthander, Gonzalez, their prize free agent pickup via Cuba, now has shoulder discomfort. This is after Cole Hamels just returned from his shoulder issues, while relievers Mike Adams, Jonathan Pettibone, and Ethan Martin have also had issues. Allowing the NL East rival Braves to grab Santana wasn’t a good thing.
4. Michael Pineda, RHP, Yankees — If spring training ended today, he would likely win the No. 5 starter job, which has been up for grabs among Pineda, Adam Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno. One or two of the losers will likely find spots in the bullpen. They still have a need for a lefty reliever with Matt Thornton being their one and only for the moment.
5. Manny Ramirez, OF/DH, free agent — A two-time PED offender, Ramirez is eyeing another comeback to the big leagues. While there’s little doubt Ramirez could roll out of bed and hit, even turning 42 on May 30, he’s likely not going to receive a chance. “He’s poison,” said one National League GM. “I know he’s changed his life around and his personality has changed, but I doubt anyone would take the risk, especially with a 42-year-old player. I think a lot of teams would pardon one PED offense, but two? I doubt it, but crazier things have happened. Never take away the fact he was one of the greatest righthanded hitters ever.” Ramirez is working out with Miguel Tejada in Miami.
6. Drew Hutchinson, RHP, Blue Jays — Hutchinson becomes the Blue Jays’ latest hope for the rotation. He’s looked the best of any starter so far. John Farrell, who managed Hutchinson in Toronto, said, “He’s got a great arm and a great feel for pitching. I enjoyed watching him as a young guy coming up. He’s got a bright future.”
7. Ryan Lavarnway, C/1B — Lavarnway believes it’s a good thing he’ll move around the diamond in an effort to get more at-bats, and thus create a more consistent approach to hitting while rekindling the power he’s seemed to have lost. One scout, who saw him regularly when he was hitting homers in the minor leagues, said, “I think he just fell into what happens to catchers once they catch a lot — their hitting takes a backseat to running a staff and concentrating on game-calling. He’s a guy teams would be interested in — like a Ryan Doumit type — if he could hit for power and catch every now and then.”
8. Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Rays — Odorizzi is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation and he’ll likely take it. The Rays love his thoughtful approach to pitching and really believe he’s going to have a tremendous feel for game-planning against hitters.
9. Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Cubs — Theo Epstein received offers for him this offseason but didn’t pull the trigger. As pitching injuries begin to mount in Atlanta (Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy), there’s been some buzz in the scouting community that the Braves might have an interest in the former Notre Dame wide receiver.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Over the last two seasons, more homers have been hit in Baltimore (458) than in any other ballpark. Toronto is next with 418. Only 195 homers have been hit in San Francisco.” Also, “Prince Fielder has 1,352 career hits, same as Rico Petrocelli.” And, “Over the last five seasons, the Braves have the best team ERA at 3.44, while the Orioles have the worst at 4.54.” . . . Happy birthday, Stephen Drew (31).