The music would blare though the clubhouse in the minutes after 12 p.m., a full two hours before some teammates would arrive to the ballpark.
Kendrys Morales is an old soul of sorts, a fan of the classics, so as he made a home at Kauffman Stadium in 2015, he settled on a simple routine. He would show up to the stadium around noon, change into a pair of basketball shorts and a T-shirt and cue up a playlist from a past generation.
“Elvis,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “Frank Sinatra.”
In his first season in Kansas City, the rhythms of Morales fit his new club perfectly. As a switch-hitting designated hitter with hands like cinderblocks, he swatted 22 homers and racked up a team-high 106 RBIs. As a veteran in the clubhouse, he offered a touch of swagger. One year after the worst season of his career, he rebounded with one of his best, recording an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .847, the second highest of his career.
“He just created real depth in that lineup,” Yost said. “His ability to hit with power and drive the ball from both sides of the plate; he did a nice job for us.”
As the 2016 season approaches, the Royals are hoping for more of the same. As a one-for-one replacement for former designated hitter Billy Butler, Morales was an upgrade last season. They are hopeful he will be again. Club officials have long maintained that Morales’ dismal 2014 was the result of extenuating circumstances. They see little reason he won’t offer similar production this season.
“Hopefully we can have a great year like we did last year,” Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol said, serving as a translator for Morales. “And everything will take care of itself.”
The process will begin in spring training, a luxury Morales had in 2015, something he didn’t have in 2014.
The story is well known by now. When Morales entered free agency following the 2013 season, the Seattle Mariners, his old club, presented him with a qualifying offer. Morales declined, but the offer reduced the level of interest from other clubs. Under the guidance of agent Scott Boras, Morales did not sign until June, when teams would not lose a draft pick for acquiring him.
When he joined the Minnesota Twins that season, he suffered through a putrid stretch. Without the help of spring training, his performance flat-lined.
“Once he gets going, he’s fine,” Yost said. “But like every player, he needed spring training.”
A year ago, the Royals gave Morales a team-high 72 at-bats in the spring. He responded by winning a Silver Slugger Award and capturing the Edgar Martinez Award, given annually to baseball’s best designated hitter. He also won his first World Series championship. When he stood on the stage at the victory parade in November, he could only think one thing.
“Thank God we were able to have a season we had last year,” Grifol said, translating for Morales.
“You play a long season, and it’s a grind, and to be able to do what we did, it’s incredible. A lot of players play 17, 18 years of professional baseball and they never experience something like that.”
For now, Morales can expect another heavy work load during this spring training. Through one week, he was 4 for 13 with a double and two RBIs. When the season begins, he will once again slot fifth in the batting order, behind first baseman Eric Hosmer, ahead of either Alex Gordon or Mike Moustakas.
Yost favors the alignment, which takes advantage of Morales’ switch-hitting ability. It allows the Royals to attack right-handers with three straight lefties in the middle of the lineup while still maintaining a left-right-left combo against left-handers.
“It made our lineup very deep and very potent,” Yost said.
When the season was over, Morales headed back home, taking close to a month off. He had never played such a long season, and his body needed time to recover. By early December, he was ready to return to work. For Morales, the year could be critical. At 32 years old, he is entering the second year of a two-year, $17 million contract. The deal included a mutual option worth $11 million for 2017. Either side can walk away after 2016.
When he arrived in Surprise in February, he took his spot on the far side of the locker room, near catcher Salvador Perez and shortstop Alcides Escobar. On most days, the music in the clubhouse is controlled from the same corner.
“He’s phenomenal in the clubhouse; he’s a phenomenal teammate,” Yost said. “But he’s a real run-producer.”