A strange thought crept into the mind of Royals manager Ned Yost as he watched a barrel-chested figure shag fly balls this past week at Camden Yards. Yost tried to shake the thought, but the figure in the outfield kept running down every ball hit near him. Yost allowed himself to ask the question: Could designated hitter Kendrys Morales play the outfield?
“I thought it was crazy, too,” Yost said before Tuesday’s game against the Indians. “Until it hit me over the head like a hammer, watching balls hit in the gap, and he’s getting over and he’s catching them. And then ball’s hit over his head: He’s drop-stepping, he’s turned and, boom, he’s catching it.
“And I saw there on the bench and watched the entire extra batting practice, and I’m like ‘Dang.’ ”
The revelation has led Morales to spend the last two afternoons at Progressive Field conducting outfield drills with first-base coach Rusty Kuntz. The Royals want to prepare Morales for the field in case the team reaches the World Series. Yost could experiment with Morales in right field when the Royals play a makeup game Sept. 28 at Wrigley Field.
The Royals would like to keep Morales available, as he has been one of their better hitters in 2015. He entered Tuesday’s game with an .825 on-base plus slugging percentage, his highest since 2010. He leads the Royals with 101 RBIs.
Morales, 32, played center field as a prospect growing up in Cuba. But he played little outfield after he arrived in the United States. His frame thickened and a freakish leg injury with the Angels in 2010 sapped him of his speed. He has attempted only two stolen bases since 2010.
Still, Yost wanted Kuntz’s opinion. When he asked Kuntz to hit Morales flyballs, Kuntz asked if Yost had gone mad. Yost insisted he was being serious. A day later, still in Baltimore, Kuntz took a peek.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I see this guy running all over the place,” Kuntz said. “And he caught everything! And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute.’
He added, “It looked so natural, so effortless that I was like ‘OK, I’m calling (shenanigans). Something’s up with this.’ ”
Convinced that Yost was not crazy, Kuntz took the field with Morales these past two afternoons around 2 p.m. The drills are designed to acclimate Morales to outfield play. He has played only nine games in the field this season, all of them at first base. Before his leg injury, Morales appeared in right field in 17 games with the Angels.
In years past, the Royals experimented with first baseman Eric Hosmer in right field, in an attempt to keep Billy Butler’s bat in the lineup in National League parks. Hosmer possessed the athleticism, but looked uncomfortable in the role. He is a natural infielder.
But Morales, Yost believes, suddenly, has the pedigree of a life-long outfielder.
“What makes you question it is you watch him run the bases and his foot speed isn’t great,” Yost said. “But he gets great jumps on the ball. And his routes to the ball are good. And he handles the ball. Like, when Hoz gets out there, it’s awkward. With him, it’s not awkward. It’s natural.”
Yost hopes for the chance to utilize this arrangement in a few weeks.
“It may never come to pass,” Yost said. “But you keep all your options open and keep working on it, in case something happens.”