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Morales, Mariners a great match; time to lock him up

By Shannon Drayer

No doubt the buzz today will be about Nick Franklin and his second big-league start, as it should be. But a rather pressing issue is facing the Mariners right now, one that could have a big impact on their future, is getting a deal done with Kendrys Morales.

Gary Hill took a look at the chances the Mariners have to re-sign Morales, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, in this post. It is an excellent breakdown of what Morales’ prospects may be in the offseason, but watching him play at first base for five straight games this week I have to think that more National League teams could jump into the sweepstakes if it comes to that.

The Mariners should not let that happen. They should be working on an extension right now.

While Morales has been the best hitter on this Mariners team in desperate search of a reliable and clutch bat, he hasn’t quite received the attention that his numbers should have earned him. This most likely is because of the language barrier. The public doesn’t really know about him. He is no stranger inside that Mariners clubhouse, however, where he quickly established himself as a leader.

The numbers speak volumes: .298/.368/.485/.853 with the highest offensive WAR on the team at 1.4. With runners in scoring position he is .400/.460/.667/1.127. Those numbers are ridiculous and a somewhat small sample size, but his career and recent career numbers with RISP are strong.

Despite little fanfare, Kendrys Morales has been the Mariners’ best hitter this season, leading the team in batting average, on-base percentage and runs batted in. (AP)

Beyond the numbers he has impressed both teammates, coaches and Eric Wedge.

“He’s tough. He’s tough out there,” Felix Hernandez told me recently. “I have faced him a couple of times and he is like if you make a mistake, he is going to hit it. If you make good pitches, he’s going to foul it off. He is a great hitter.”

That is what Felix saw from across the field. He has been even more impressed with what he has seen in his own clubhouse.

“He studies a lot,” Hernandez said. “He is one of those guys that always paying attention to the pitcher. I put him at the top. He is a great hitter, both sides of the plate, he’s always going out there with a different mind, going out there trying to help. He is the kind of guy we want. He’s a great hitter.”

Brendan Ryan and Justin Smoak have both talked about the impact Morales has in the dugout during games. He is not just a cheerleader but a teacher as well. According to Ryan, he studies the pitchers, checks the video during games and shares what he sees with his teammates in the dugout.

Wedge noticed how active Morales was in the dugout during spring training and was happy to see it carry over to the regular season.

“He’s good, he knows how to DH, he is really good in regard to doing his work, pulling Hanny (hitting coach Dave Hansen) down doing what he needs to do, he is always active,” Wedge said when asked how Morales handles DH’ing vs. first base. “The biggest difference is when he is in the dugout (as the DH), he is in the dugout more, which is a benefit to the other players, quite frankly, because he has so much to offer. He is a student of the game, he sees everything, he has a great heartbeat. He is a special player.”

How special? I asked Hansen where Morales ranks in terms of preparation and studying hitting.

“He’s up there with the best in the game as far as that goes right now,” Hansen said. “As a hitter he is amazing in being able to hold on to rhythms for a long time, which keeps his eyes relaxed, which helps him adjust his speeds. He can cover the slider and the fastball and the changeup. He’s just a natural hitter. I think his hand-eye coordination is really good and he has a feel for it in the box. He knows when he is out of whack.

“I love watching the guy. He is kind of the art of hitting right before your eyes.”

When was the last time the Mariners had a hitter like that? A hitter with the tools he has at the plate is great. According to everyone I have talked with, he brings an incredible work ethic as well. On the road he doesn’t catch a cab or the first or second bus. No, he catches a ride with the trainers, who are the very first members of the team to head to the clubhouse each day.

He produces on the field and he sets the example. The intriguing thing is, according to Hansen, he could get even better.

“The only thing that would really hold him back from being with the really elite is he could hit every pitch,” he said. “He puts too many in play sometimes. He’s on the attack. Pitch to pitch he is making adjustments in the box, he has always got this urge to get better.”

That urge to get better keeps Morales in the batting cages for a good part of the day. Hansen is more than happy to have him there. I asked if he was someone he could pull into conversations with other hitters.

“I don’t have to,” Hansen answered with a laugh. “He always does. He loves to teach. I think part of his personality. He isn’t hesitant at all in wanting to help the younger kids. If we are talking about something and he gets it, now he gives a veteran response to the young kid that we are working with and that kind of reaffirms everything. He is a natural at that and I think that is something that makes him such a great teammate is that he is not only approachable, he is not afraid to approach.”

“He’s a pretty special dude. Both hitting and in the locker room,” Hansen concluded.

In looking at signing Morales to an extension, the only concern I would have would be with his ankle. It very well may always be a day-to-day thing in regard to playing in the field. He can go out there, but if it swells up on him he will need to be backed off the next day. With all that said, it is very encouraging to see what he has been able to do with Smoak out the last five days.

Morales is a Scott Boras client and as such the assumption of many is that he won’t sign during the season. As Gary pointed out in his post, there are a number of Boras clients who have signed during the season. Furthermore, I have heard from a number of people that Morales likes it in Seattle and would like to stay. At what price? Who knows, but it is a start.

The only non-arbitration or club-control contracts the Mariners have on the books for 2014 are those held by Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Without even beginning to speculate what revenue the new television deal could pull in (and don’t assume huge Los Angeles or Texas dollars here, especially at the start. This is a different market and the deal itself is very different from the others) it would appear that the Mariners are poised to enter the upcoming free-agent market with the most payroll flexibility they have ever had.

Morales very well may be the guy to build around. At the very least, he could be an important building block. Don’t you have to take a run at that? Boras client or not?

Get him signed and put him on a banner alongside Felix’s in front of the gates to Safeco Field. This is the hitter they have been trying to find for a long time.

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