DUNEDIN, Fla. – Unsure exactly how much defence the Toronto Blue Jays plan on him playing in the 2017 season, Kendrys Morales made sure to ready himself for all possibilities.
“I worked a lot on my defence in the off-season because I didn’t want to get here and be surprised if they wanted me to play on the field,” the slugger said Sunday in his first meeting with media since signing a $33-million, three-year deal as a free agent in November. “So let’s just wait and see what’s going to happen out there.”
The Blue Jays have little set in stone at first base and left field – GM Ross Atkins said Saturday the best-case scenario is Justin Smoak at first and Steve Pearce in left – and the 33-year-old Cuban could offers a potential alternative.
Manager John Gibbons made clear that’s not part of the plan.
“He came here to DH,” he said. “Of course you play interleague games, he’ll get those games at first, but that’s not his job, that’s not why he was brought here. We’ll get him out there occasionally. He wasn’t going to play first over in Kansas City with (Eric) Hosmer at all unless he got hurt. But he’s at his best when he’s DHing, but I’m sure it does him some good to get out there every now and then.”
Morales hasn’t played much in the field since suffering a broken left ankle in 2010, and hasn’t logged more than 274.1 defensive innings since, that total coming over 31 games with Seattle in 2013. His defensive workload has shrunk since, to 209.2 innings in 2014, 75.1 innings in 2015 and 90 last year, 53 of them at first and 37 in right field.
“I prepared myself this year a little bit more than the other years to be ready to play on the field,” Morales said through interpreter Josue Peley. “To be honest I don’t know where I’m going to play during the season. They’re going to have to see me. But I’m ready to play anywhere they ask me to.”
Without doubt the Blue Jays didn’t sign Morales for his glove, but for his bat. A switch-hitter with a career batting average of .273 and OPS of .795 over parts of 10 big-league seasons, he’ll be counted on to replace a good chunk of the production that departed with Edwin Encarnacion.
Both the Blue Jays and teammates expect his power to play at Rogers Centre after a career spent in the home run graveyards of Angels Stadium, Safeco Field, Target Field and Kauffman Stadium. In 28 career games at the dome, he has two homers, 11 doubles and 15 RBIs with a career OPS of .769.
“Every time I play on that field I know it’s a hitters’ field, so I think my production is going to a little bit higher,” said Morales. “It’s really not easy to hit in the big-leagues whether it’s a friendly hitters’ ballpark or not. You’ve still got to go out there, put your work in and make sure to hit the ball hard.”
Morales was one of the first free agents to sign this off-season and bucking the market trend for older sluggers, secured a multi-year quickly. The Blue Jays shifted their focus to him after gaining little traction with Encarnacion after making him an $80-million, four-year offer with the potential for a fifth-year option.
“The general manager and my agent got together after the season was over and we met all of us at one time and everything went well, so I took the opportunity,” said Morales. “When I play against the Blue Jays, I liked the way the guys played and they pushed each other. And for me every time I played I liked that kind of intensity on the field. So for me it was an easy choice.”