Initially, in the late offseason, incumbent first baseman Corey Hart was sidelined with a knee injury that required surgery. Even with an accelerated rehabilitation schedule, he may be out until some time in May.
Mat Gamel, Hart's apparent replacement, was returning this season from his own knee surgery. Gamel had appeared to be healthy and was working out at first base at Brewers spring camp in Maryvale, Ariz. Then the almost unthinkable happened. Just as Spring Training began, Gamel suffered the same injury he experienced last year, a torn anterior cruciate ligament to the same knee. Gamel will be lost for the year.
Speaking with Brewers manager Ron Roenicke and general manager Doug Melvin at the Phoenix area Spring Training Media Day, both indicated they would first look internally for a temporary replacement for Hart. Both men spoke enthusiastically about the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Morris as a very viable first-base possibility.
The 24-year-old Morris came to the Brewers after a very fine high school baseball career at Grissom High School (Ala.). He hit 46 home runs for his alma mater. Morris' high school performance earned him a second-round selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft by the Boston Red Sox.
Morris declined to sign with the Red Sox, opting to attend college at Auburn University, where he became an All-American and SEC Player of The Year.
Morris began his professional play at Class A Wisconsin in the Midwest League. In his 314 plate appearances in 2010, Morris hit .251 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs. He also had 19 doubles, three triples and seven stolen bases. Morris showed a nice combination of power and hustle as a 21-year-old first-year player. He only struck out 58 times, a statistic that sent signals of his ability to make contact.
The following season, Morris played the majority of the season at High A Brevard County in the Florida State League. He hit .271 and stroked 19 homers while driving in 67 runs. Morris again stole seven bases, this time in 541 plate appearances. He earned a promotion to Double-A Huntsville, where he played only four games.
Morris played 115 games at first base that season, making 19 errors. That's too many. He also played six games at third base, where he picked up an additional two errors.
Morris began 2012 where he finished the previous season, at Huntsville, playing in his hometown. The comfortable environment must have agreed with Morris, as he hit a robust .303 with 28 home runs and 113 RBIs. He served notice that his bat was alive and well. Morris' outstanding year at Huntsville earned Morris the Southern League's Most Valuable Player Award. He was also named the Brewers Player Of The Year, a recognition that is actually called the Robin Yount Performance Award.
When I saw Morris play this past fall for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, he looked a little bit ragged and worn. I saw a slow bat. I saw a hitter who was beaten by fastballs, as well as the usually-more-difficult-to-hit breaking pitches.
When I spoke with Melvin, he indicated that Morris was tired when he arrived to play in Phoenix. He had just completed a vigorous season, working hard to maintain his outstanding hitting throughout the long campaign.
I understand that completely. I saw signs in Morris' offensive game that indicated hitting and power tools worthy of patience and continued development. His upside looked realistic.
Morris hit only .256 in 86 at-bats this past fall. He had one home run and drove in eight runs. Morris played in 21 games, playing first base in 19, and made three errors. He also served as the team's designated hitter twice.
At one point in his playing history, Morris began to realize that remaining in top physical condition would be paramount to his potential success. As a result, he lost a considerable amount of weight and dedicated himself to fitness.
Morris is solidly built, and he uses his well-distributed weight properly in the shift of his hips and as the trigger to his swing. He has a slight uppercut that will serve him well as his raw power continues to become refined and he becomes a consistent home run threat.
At times, I saw Morris get himself out swinging at bad pitches. An improvement in his pitch recognition, discipline and plate coverage will serve him well as refinements to his offense. He has the ability to make those adjustments.
Other than his outstanding offensive breakthrough last season, Morris worked hard on his defense at first base. He reduced his errors from 19 to only six in 1,259 chances. Morris will have to continue to make strides, remembering to work on his footwork and defense, and not just on improving his bat.
Not an overly fast runner, Morris knows how to steal a base and run the bases with an appropriately aggressive approach. He has what scouts refer to as "usable" speed.
In Miller Park, Morris may become a very legitimate threat to hit hard line drives for extra bases while producing a nice share of home runs. As his confidence grows, his performance will improve.
MLB.com ranks Morris as the fifth-best Brewers prospect.
The knee injuries of Hart and Gamel could provide the Brewers an opportunity to evaluate the progress and existing level of play offered by Morris. Regardless of the outcome of this look by the front office, Morris shows the type of tools that eventually will play well in the middle of the batting order.