After 11 unsuccessful attempts to defect from his native Cuba, Morales finally reached the Florida Keys, and the Angels gave the 21-year-old a $3 million bonus in December 2004. Morales reached the majors in 2006, but it wasn’t until the Angels failed to re-sign Mark Teixeira after the 2008 season that Morales was given a full season’s worth of at-bats. Morales put up a monster age-26 season, hitting for a .306/.355/.569 line with 79 extra-base hits in 622 plate appearances—including 34 home runs and 108 runs batted in—and had all the makings of a fantasy beast for years to come. In 2010, Morales was on his way to replicating his previous year, hitting for a .290/.346/.487 clip, when after his 51st game played on May 29th, disaster struck:
Morales’ broken left ankle suffered celebrating his now-infamous walkoff grand slam caused him to miss the rest of the 2010 season and all of the 2011 season as well. He resurfaced with the Angels in 2012, hitting for a .787 OPS, but saw his strikeout rate soar to a career-high rate of over 22 percent, and despite a .273 AVG and 22 home runs in 134 games, the Angels shipped him to Seattle in exchange for Jason Vargas. The switch-hitting Morales entered his last year of team control and hit very similarly (.785 OPS and 23 home runs) with the Mariners in 2013, but he couldn’t find a job over the winter after turning down their $14.1 million qualifying offer.
Morales sat out his age-31 season until the Twins picked him up (for a prorated, one-year, $12 million deal) in early June of 2014 and hit a paltry .234/.259/.325 in 39 games before being shipped back to the Mariners a week prior to the non-waiver trade deadline. He didn’t fare much better in his second tour of duty with Seattle, hitting seven home runs over 239 plate appearances the rest of the way and compiling a .632 OPS. That didn’t exactly plant him on the fantasy radar heading into this season.
What Went Right in 2015
Despite Morales’ horrific 2014 campaign, the Royals signed him to a two-year, $17 million deal that included an $11 million mutual option (with a $1.5 million buyout) for 2017. He rewarded the Royals with his finest season with the bat since 2009, hitting .290/.362/.485 with 22 home runs and 106 RBI (eighth overall) in a career-high 158 games played—all but nine coming as a designated hitter. Morales, now 32, finished as the 11th-best first baseman on ESPN’s Player Rater and the 43rd overall hitter, a remarkable year for a player who was taken 319th overall on average in standard mixed leagues. Morales boosted his on-base percentage to a career-best .362 this season by showing improved patience at the plate, thereby walking in a career-high rate of just over nine percent of his plate appearances. Kansas City’s contact-heavy team approach also rubbed off on Morales, as he struck out in a full-season career-low 16.1 percent of his 639 plate appearances. Taking Buster Posey and Nelson Cruz out of the equation, Morales’ 131 wRC+ placed him 10th among first basemen/designated hitters (min. 500 PA), ahead of Jose Abreu (taken seventh overall on average, 129 wRC+ ), Adrian Gonzalez (48th overall, 129 wRC+), and Prince Fielder (58th overall, 124 wRC+).
What Went Wrong in 2015
With Eric Hosmer firmly entrenched as the everyday first baseman, Morales appeared in a full-season-low nine games at first base, causing him to lose eligibility there in many leagues heading into next season. The switch-hitting Morales has always hit for more power as a left-handed hitter (.485 SLG) in his career than as a righty (.415 SLG), and this season was no different, with only four of his 22 home runs coming as a right-handed hitter (.113 isolated power) in 262 plate appearances, good for a .412 slugging percentage. Morales hit for a .298 AVG against left-handed pitching this season, meaning he shouldn’t be in danger of being platooned in the short-term, but if the slugging dips much lower, he could be in danger of losing plate appearances down the road. Morales faced right-handed pitchers in 59 percent of his plate appearances in 2015 and hit 72 percent of his extra-base hits (.254 isolated power) against them.
What To Expect in 2016
Combined with Morales’ contract status and Ned Yost’s predilection for never changing his lineup, it would be surprising to not see him penciled into the fourth or fifth slot in the Royals lineup as the everyday designated hitter—which should give him a great opportunity to challenge the 100-RBI plateau once again. Morales’ BABIP totals have been over .300 in all of his full seasons, and his .319 BABIP this season is right in line with his .315 mark in 2012 and his .309 showing in the 2013 season with Seattle. His HR:FB rates are also near his full-season norms, as his 13.5 percent mark in 2015 was just below his 14.8 percent career rate. Morales’ hard-contact percentage peaked at 37.9 percent in his breakout 2009 season, dwindled to 30 percent in 2014, and rebounded nicely to 34.9 percent this season. In each of Morales’ four full big-league campaigns, he has hit for at least a .273 AVG, and his home run totals have recently remained steady: 22 in 2012, 23 in 2013, 22 this season.
The Great Beyond
Much like that of his teammate Lorenzo Cain, Morales’ fantasy value will undoubtedly be tied to his ability to stay on the field. There’s no dancing around the reality that injuries and contractual matters have led to only three seasons of 500 or more plate appearances since his impressive 2009. Mike Gianella valued Morales at $24 in AL-only leagues this season—tremendous value for those brave enough to tab him after being left for dead during the previous year’s nightmarish performance. Having an existing, guaranteed contract, and likely appearing solely as a designated hitter in the middle of what should be another productive Royals lineup, gives him a much better chance of staying on the field and continuing his solid 2015 performance over the next few seasons.
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