- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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.
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.
• 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.
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.
5. Mike Maddux denies he pulled out of the running for the Cubs' managerial job.
Dings and dents
The fight for jobs
4. A couple of pitchers are working to be part of the San Diego bullpen.
• 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.)
• Bobby Valentine is working to cut down on opponents' steals, writes Peter Abraham.
• A top Yankees prospect has opened eyes, writes Pete Caldera.
• Koby Clemens is following in his father's footsteps, writes Bob Elliott.
- "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.
Buster Olney writes that Kendrys Morales is recovering nicely from an injury he suffered in 2010, and he's on track to be the Angels' designated hitter, which would go a long way in balancing Los Angeles' lineup and making teams pitch to Albert Pujols.