DETROIT -- With a daring boat trip to Miami, a months-long bureaucratic holdup, a well-publicized Major League contract and one Minor League level behind him, Cuban defector Kendry Morales finally found his way to the World team in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday. On the other side of the diamond, playing for Team USA, was Brandon Wood, a slugging shortstop who had a much easier progression to the exhibition of young talent at Comerica Park two days before the 76th Major League All-Star Game. The one thing both players have in common -- aside from possible future big-league stardom -- is that they're property of the Angels, who are quite happy with the arrangement.
"We couldn't be more pleased with the potential of both guys and of the progress they've made," Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said via telephone. "They can both hit and hit for power. They're young, they're an exciting part of our system and now they're in the Futures Game." For a while, it didn't look like a certainty that Morales would even make it to the United States this year. The 22-year-old switch-hitter, who started at first base Sunday, was suspended by Cuban authorities last December after they suspected he was planning to defect. He did so in early June, was declared a free agent late in the 2004 season, and played winter ball in his new home of the Dominican Republic while getting ready for Spring Training with the Angels. That didn't happen. Morales never showed up in Tempe, Ariz., perplexing Angels officials, who were told that he was waiting for paperwork to be cleared. He finally made it to this country and debuted for the Class A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes on May 21 with a bang. "The second pitch he saw, he hit it off the scoreboard," said Wood, his Rancho teammate. "With all the eyes on him and all the pressure he must have felt, it was pretty impressive. The guy is really talented. He's amazing to watch in batting practice." Rancho fans didn't get to see much of that BP action, though. After hitting .344 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 22 California League games, Morales was promoted to Double-A Arkansas. He started off 0-for-12 but entered the Futures Game with a .256 average, four homers -- three in one game last week -- and 18 RBIs in 22 games. "When he started out slowly at Double-A, some guys were concerned, but I wasn't," Bane said. "He's getting changed up and curved to death and he's making some adjustments. The bottom line is, he's hitting with power and he's driving runs in. He's a big-time hitter." And even though Morales has been in this country for less than two months and hasn't yet learned English, he somehow manages to carry the mannerisms of a veteran big-leaguer. When asked if he was emotional about his defection or frustrated by the glacial Dominican process of getting him cleared to play in the U.S., Morales shook his head. "I just kept playing and working out," Morales said through an interpreter. "I got here, played Single-A, made it to Double-A. I've just really concentrated on improving." Wood, meanwhile, has shown significant improvement from 2004 to 2005. The 20-year-old, who was the Angels' first-round draft pick out of high school in 2003, looks quite a bit bigger than the 6-foot-3, 185 pounds he's listed at, and his numbers have grown, too. He hit 11 homers at low Class A Cedar Rapids last year, showing the power potential the Angels drafted him for but also showing defensive skills that some within the Angels organization thought were more suited to third base. That's all changed this year at Rancho. Wood has been on a major power surge, with 28 homers, which leads all of organized baseball. He's also driven in 71 runs and hit 28 doubles while batting .296 in 82 games. And he's convinced the Angels that his future lies at shortstop. When asked if the Angels ever imagined Wood to become such a prolific slugger so soon, Bane laughed. "We're supposed to say, 'Sure, we knew it all along,' but no. No way. He's exceeding what we thought as far as his power, but we always loved his makeup and his competitive nature. And the power isn't California League power. He's hitting some balls way out." Wood also admitted that he's a bit surprised by the jump in home runs, but he said he's not that surprised. "I'm finally getting into a groove with my swing, and I'm finding out what makes me a good hitter," Wood said. "The homers are coming a little early, but I'm just trying to stay within myself." Wood and Morales loom large on the Angels' radar for the future and got their licks in during Sunday's game. Morales shot a double into the gap in left-center field in his first at-bat, then flied out to deep right in his second plate appearance. Wood, on the bench behind Tampa Bay prospect B.J. Upton, entered the game in the fifth inning, played seamless defense and legged out an infield single in his only at-bat. "We've got two guys here who work hard, love to come to the park every day, and can flat-out hit," Bane said. "That's not a bad combination to have."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.