By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — The first day of full squad workouts for the Seattle Mariners brought smiles and childlike enthusiasm to even the most veteran of players and the gruffest of coaches.
It’s the official start to a new season with new hopes and possibilities.
But few players cherished this first day more than Kendrys Morales.
The big slugger was smiling, laughing and enjoying the first day a little more than most.
Because a year ago this time, Morales wasn’t laughing or smiling. Instead, he was watching from the sidelines. His surgically repaired broken ankle, which he shattered against the Mariners celebrating a walk-off home run in 2010, was still healing and Morales wasn’t cleared to participate.
This year he was out on the field, taking ground balls, mashing balls during batting practice and even doing the running and conditioning drills with the rest of the team.
“It’s pretty radical, last year I wasn’t even able to participate at this time because of my ankle,” Morales said through a translator and Mariners coach Rafael Colon.
Morales wasn’t able to do much conditioning or leg strengthening last offseason because of the injury. This offseason he has been able to do more to strengthen the muscles around the ankle. He came into spring training feeling almost like he did before the injury.
“I don’t think he’s playing catch-up anymore,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
The Mariners traded for Morales so they could catch up to the rest of baseball in terms of power production. After missing all of 2011, Morales returned for 2012 and hit .273 with 22 homers and 73 RBI in 135 games for the Angels. The Mariners believe that a healthy offseason will lead to an increase in those numbers. Will they ever reach the numbers he put up in 2009 when he put up a .306 batting average with 43 doubles, 34 homers and 108 RBI in 152 games?
It seems unlikely. But if he even approaches those numbers it will be better than any Mariners’ hitter in the past few seasons.
“He’s a big league hitter,” Wedge said. “He’s a hitter first, but of course he has power. He’s a run producer that is comfortable in the middle of the lineup and has experience at it. He’s someone that we are relying on.”
And hitting is what Morales is mostly going to be doing for the Mariners. With Justin Smoak still counted on to play first base and Michael Morse’s ability to play first base, Morales will likely be the designated hitter.
“Obviously, you can’t guess at anything,” Wedge said. “We see him getting the bulk of his at-bats at designated hitter, but we will also make sure he gets his reps at first base to have that option just in case.”
Morales will prepare as if he would be the everyday first baseman.
“I have to be the one that’s ready,” he said.
Ideally, the Mariners will hit Morse and Morales together in the lineup, giving the team the potential for a combined 60 home runs. Last season, they were forced to bat players like Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero in those 3-4-5 spots, which was a lot to ask for the young players.
“It’s important,” Wedge said. “We feel like three or four guys can hit in the middle of our lineup.”