Morales a source of Angels optimism

A healthy Kendrys Morales gives the Angels another force in the middle of the order. Norm Hall/Getty Images

And on the seventh day, Kendrys Morales rested, after a busy week. He hit a lot, and when he hit he ran, scoring from first base on a double in a minor league game Saturday, and after he ran Morales felt like he could run some more.

The worst-case scenario for the Los Angeles Angels when spring training began was that Morales would continue to have problems stemming from his freak injury 22 months ago, and that he would not return to action.

But what the Angels are seeing is Morales' best-case scenario. "We are very, very optimistic at this point," Angels GM Jerry Dipoto said Sunday night.

What has been particularly encouraging for the Angels is how quickly Morales has regained his timing. He has been playing in minor league games, in situations designed to get him as much work as possible. Because teams can design their own rules in those minor league practice games, Morales has been leading off a lot of innings -- every inning, whenever the Angels have wanted -- to get him as much action as possible. There was a day, Dipoto said with a chuckle, that Morales was used in games going on simultaneously on different fields, so that he'd go from one field to another to get his swings.

"The intent throughout has been to get him to assume the DH duty as much as possible," Dipoto said. "He's done very well. His timing is good, and he's been very aggressive."

In particular, Dipoto noted, there are signs of progress in how quickly Morales has integrated the lower half of his body into his swing -- a great sign that he is not only using his hands and feeling for the ball. Rather, he's using his whole body, including his legs.

Dipoto didn't need to say how much of a difference-maker Morales could be in the Angels' lineup if he gets back to being an elite slugger. The Angels' lineup is very right-handed, and without Morales hitting behind Albert Pujols, opposing teams would probably pitch around Pujols regularly or, at the very least, constantly line up right-handed relievers in the later innings. Morales, a switch-hitter, might be the best hitter the Angels have to capitalize on those tactics, as Victor Martinez did in batting behind Miguel Cabrera last year with Detroit. In Morales' last full season, 2009, he hit 34 homers and had a .569 slugging percentage.

Morales' schedule has been to play for two straight days and then back off for a day, but that will probably change soon.
There is a corollary benefit to using veterans in minor league games: If necessary, you can backdate any disabled stint as much as needed. But the Angels intend to use Morales in big league exhibition games soon, a plan that will be drawn out day by day, depending on how Morales is feeling. "It's the best way we can move forward," Dipoto said.

The Texas Rangers are getting a lot of positive answers in spring, too, as Gil LeBreton writes: Derek Holland and Matt Harrison have been dominant.

One last Angels-Rangers note: Mike Napoli will have to change his phone number.

Harper sent to minors

• When Bryce Harper was told Sunday that he was being sent to the minors, he took the news well. Maybe because he expected it. Harper is known to be intelligent and he probably understood, as this camp opened, that he would have to utterly dominate in order to have a chance to make the Washington Nationals out of spring training. He would have had to have been nearly perfect to force Washington's hand -- and even then, he still might not have made it, because he's 19 years old and there are good reasons for Washington to have him start the year in the minors.

And Harper did not dominate. He hurt his calf, and among some good days at the plate, he had some rough days. But Nationals manager Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo indicated Sunday evening that they expect Harper to be in the big leagues sooner rather than later. "He's the real deal," Johnson said. "He doesn't need to work on anything."

Said Rizzo: "I think he took [the demotion] as the next challenge in his career. He's going to go down there and tear it up and make an impact when he comes back."

Harper has a history of struggling after being promoted into a new level, as Johnson explained, and the Nationals were concerned that if Harper got off to a slow start, those struggles might become distractions early in a season in which the team has high expectations. The Washington staff decided it would be better if Harper started at Triple-A and built some credentials at that level before moving up.

And the Nationals want him to get more comfortable playing in center field, where he would best fit with the team now, because of the presence of Michael Morse and Jayson Werth at the corners. "We're going to give him ample opportunities to track some balls in center field," said Rizzo.

Neither Johnson nor Rizzo mentioned this, but there is possible financial benefit to having Harper start the year in the minors. If the Nationals wait until May 1 to call him up, they delay his free agency until after the 2018 season, and if they wait until around June 1, they would probably delay his arbitration eligibility by a year.

But the Nationals are poised to be contenders this year, and if Harper had obliterated pitchers this spring, it's hard to imagine Washington would have sent him down. At the outset of the 1984 season, Dwight Gooden forced his way onto the Mets' roster, when Johnson managed that team, at age 19, the age that Harper is now.

"It didn't fit quite perfectly, like Dwight did," Johnson said.

Harper acknowledge he was disappointed.


• In its conversations with managers and club officials this spring, Major League Baseball has continued an effort -- started last spring -- to improve the communication between umpires and managers and players. In short, they are encouraging that there be a more civil discourse. "I don't think they mind us asking questions of the umpires, like 'Was that pitch outside?'" said one player. "I think what they don't want is any of us to get into questioning integrity."

There are no extra teeth behind this effort -- players are not subject to any more discipline than they have been in the past. Baseball just wants all parties to realize everybody benefits from better dialogue.

• Scouts are saying that Hanley Ramirez looks like a completely different hitter, with a swing much more compact than last year's very long one. "He's on a mission," said one NL talent evaluator Sunday morning.

Miami Marlins hitting coach Eduardo Perez says Ramirez is looking like MVP material, writes Manny Navarro.

Joakim Soria has a really sore elbow, and he's worried.

• The New York Yankees are open to the idea of trading a starting pitcher, and here's one possibility (and it's speculation, to be clear): Freddy Garcia would be a good fit with the Marlins. He has a very good relationship with Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, and while the work of the Miami rotation has been excellent, there is a daunting history among the Marlins' starters. Garcia threw well for the Yankees last year, is set to earn $4 million this year with some makeable incentives, and the Marlins are one of the few teams with the kind of payroll flexibility to take on that kind of money.

• The Houston Astros are preparing for the No. 1 pick in the draft, writes Zachary Levine.

Ubaldo Jimenez was clocked at 89-91 mph this spring, a scout tells Sheldon Ocker.

• Charlie Manuel has some concerns, writes Jim Salisbury. The Philadelphia Phillies did seem to catch a break, in that Placido Polanco's finger is not fractured.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Kirk Gibson is thinking about some drastic alternatives with his lineup, writes Nick Piecoro.

2. Tim Beckham was among the Rays' cuts.

3. The Rangers haven't decided how to align the lefties in their rotation.

4. The Seattle Mariners will have to make a decision on a left-hander.

5. Mike Maddux denies he pulled out of the running for the Cubs' managerial job.

6. The Cincinnati Reds cut a bunch of guys.

7. The Cleveland Indians are not considering Johnny Damon for left field.

8. Starling Marte was sent to Double-A by the Pittsburgh Pirates after an impressive spring showing.

9. The Nationals signed Xavier Nady.

Dings and dents

1. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are making progress, as Rick Hummel writes.

2. For the first time, Gibson acknowledged Stephen Drew will open the season on the disabled list.

3. A couple of Oakland Athletics players will stay back to get treatment.

4. The San Francisco Giants acknowledge Freddy Sanchez probably won't be ready for the opener, writes Henry Schulman.

5. Randy Choate has a strain.

6. Jordan Schafer hurt his hand.

7. Shaun Marcum threw two innings without discomfort.

8. Robinson Cano is OK after being hit on the hand by a pitch.

9. Zach Britton was scratched from his minor league start.

The fight for jobs

1. Mike Minor has 14 straight scoreless innings and has all but locked up a job in the Atlanta Braves' rotation, writes David O'Brien.

2. With Casey Blake hurting, Chris Nelson has emerged as the front-runner to be the Rockies' third baseman.

3. Jake McGee is feeling like he belongs, writes Joe Smith.

4. A couple of pitchers are working to be part of the San Diego bullpen.

5. Kyle Blanks could be the guy who fills in for the injured Carlos Quentin.

6. Jeff Samardzija has all but won a spot in the Cubs' rotation, writes Paul Sullivan.

Sunday's games

1. Carlos Zambrano continues to look great, writes Ted Hutton within this notebook.

2. Matt Moore lost the strike zone.

3. Dan Haren was really good again, writes Marcia Smith.

4. Gavin Floyd threw in a simulated game.

5. Francisco Liriano had another great outing, as Ben Goessling writes.

6. Ivan Nova sort of criticized his catcher, and Joe Girardi defended his catcher.

7. Mike Pelfrey got pounded, as Anthony McCarron writes.

Other stuff

• The great Furman Bisher has passed away.

Andy Pettitte could boost his Hall chances with a good year, writes Joel Sherman. I respectfully disagree with Joel on this, because such a large group of voters are disqualifying anyone who admitted using performance-enhancing drugs from consideration; Pettitte's acknowledgement of PED use effectively takes him out of the Hall conversation. Ask Mark McGwire. (And to be clear, I've voted for McGwire every year he has been on the ballot.)

Austin Jackson has had a good spring.

• Bobby Valentine is working to cut down on opponents' steals, writes Peter Abraham.

• It's boom or bust time for Pedro Alvarez.

• A top Yankees prospect has opened eyes, writes Pete Caldera.

Adam Lind hopes his new regimen will help him.

Dustin Pedroia is mentoring shortstop Jose Iglesias, writes John Tomase.

Marco Scutaro has been struggling, as Troy Renck writes.

• Koby Clemens is following in his father's footsteps, writes Bob Elliott.

Dee Gordon is looking to set the tone.

Jose Bautista is unfazed by baseball's drug testing, writes Jeff Blair, and he supports it. From Jeff's story:

    "Why wouldn't players support it?" Bautista asked before hitting his third homer of the spring in a 10-2 win over the Phillies. "The integrity of the game is just as important to players as anybody involved. I have never heard anything come out of the mouths of any player about being opposed to testing."
    [Players' association leader Michael] Weiner reiterated Sunday that the players' association investigated Bautista's claims made during a state dinner in the Dominican Republic that he'd been tested 16 times in two years and that the association did not believe Bautista was targeted, even though wording in the collective agreement suggests a player could be tested only a maximum of 12 times.