KC Royals: Kendrys Morales: A Royal job well done

The man signed by the KC Royals to replace fan favorite Billy Butler has retired. Fortunately for Kansas City, he gave the Royals two of his best seasons and helped them to a World Series title.

Kendrys Morales retired Friday. It was time. The former designated hitter for the KC Royals will turn 37 in May, an uneasy age for a 13-year veteran whose ability to hit a baseball safely as often as he could, and hopefully as far as he could, is not what it used to be. Time, punctuated by a stunningly bad 2019 season, took its toll; Morales leaves the game a free agent without a home since the Yankees released him last July.

Morales made his mark with his bat, not his glove. In only two seasons–2009 with the Angels and 2013 with Seattle–did he play more than 100 games in the field; a first baseman’s mitt was his primary defensive tool, but he ventured into the outfield now and then, played a game at third base and even pitched twice. He wasn’t a terrible defender…he was just a far better hitter, a slugger perfectly suited to be a designated hitter.

His numbers, spread across stops in Kansas City, Los Angeles/Anaheim, Seattle, Toronto, Minnesota, Oakland and New York (the Yankees, of course, because the Mets play in a league where the DH isn’t welcome), aren’t Hall of Fame worthy. But for a bizarre injury, though, Morales might have drawn more votes than he will when his name first appears on a Hall ballot five years from now.

The gruesome event occurred in 2010, Morales’ fifth big league season, and in the unlikely context of celebration. It was May 29, the 51st game of the season, when Morales slammed a heroic, 10th inning grand slam to walk his Angels off against Seattle, rounded the bases and jumped onto a home plate surrounded by joyously jumping teammates. He landed awkwardly and dislocated and broke his left ankle, an awful and complicated injury requiring a pin, a half-dozen screws, and almost two years of recovery.

At the time, with the season less than a third gone, Morales had been cruising with 11 home runs and 39 RBIs after his 2009 breakout season of 34 homers, 108 RBIs, .306 average and 139 OPS+. He missed LA’s final 111 games, then the entire 2011 season when his recovery took longer than anticipated.

With his return to the Angels in 2012 came renewed success–Morales homered 22 times, drove in 73 runs and hit .273 (119 OPS+) in 134 games. Nevertheless, LA traded him to Seattle after the season; he played all but six games for the M’s, hitting 23 homers with 80 RBIs and a .277 average (123 OPS+).

Morales tested free agency after that campaign and discovered the downside of rejecting a qualifying offer–he didn’t land a job until June when he signed with the Twins, got off to a horrifically slow start (a homer, 18 RBIs and .234 in 39 games) and was traded to Seattle. Things weren’t any better with the Mariners as Morales had only seven homers, drove in 24 and hit .207. His days in Seattle were over once again; Morales was back on the free agent market.

The KC Royals, fresh off their magical 2014 run to the World Series, needed a bat and signed Morales to the unenviable task of replacing Billy Butler, the fan favorite begrudgingly displaced from his first base home by the emergence of Eric Hosmer. KC fans aren’t hostile, but because many didn’t want to see Butler go, they didn’t celebrate Morales’ arrival after Butler left for Oakland and a stunning $30 million, three-year contract the likes of which the Royals never would have offered him.

Although Morales never made those fans forget Butler, he won their hearts in 2015 with one of the best of his 13 seasons. He stroked 41 doubles and a couple of triples, clubbed 22 homers, drove in 106 runs and slashed .290/.362/.485 with a 127 OPS+. His stellar performance played no small part in the club’s five-game ALDS triumph over Houston–his three homers and six RBIs helped the Royals overcome a two-games-to-one deficit, and his dramatic three-run, bottom of the eighth inning home run off Dallas Keuchel sealed the series-winning 7-2 victory.

Morales finished off his two-year KC Royals contract in 2016 with 30 home runs, 93 RBIs, a .263 average and 110 OPS+, giving the Royals a big two season bang for the minimum $17 million they paid for his services. He more than adequately replaced Butler and was a key to the franchise’s second World Series championship season.

His return to the KC Royals was never a given; indeed, there were two sides to the argument and, in the end, Morales chose Toronto, where he hit 49 home runs in two seasons but declined in other categories. The Jays traded him to Oakland for a minor leaguer and international slot money a day before the A’s third game of the 2019 season; after hitting .204 with one homer in 34 games, Morales found himself traded to the Yankees for cash or a player to be named later. He hit .177 with a homer with five RBIs in 19 games and was released July 2.

So it was that the demand for Morales fell and the market didn’t favor him this winter. The decline was obvious and his recent numbers weren’t attractive. Morales told ESPN Deportes on Friday that the time had come for him to spend more time with his family. So ended the excellent career of the switch-hitter who spent two of his best seasons with the Royals.

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Although it came to an end Friday, Kendrys Morales’ major league career was excellent. And for that portion of it spent in Kansas City, it was truly a Royal job well done.

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