By John Pesetski Special to FOXSportsWisconsin.com
The 2013 baseball season, and specifically his first major league spring training, couldn’t start soon enough for Milwaukee Brewers prospect Hunter Morris.
“It’s great to be in big-league camp,” the 6-foot-3 first baseman said. “With the season I had last year, I was hoping to be here. The whole offseason I was waiting for the call from the team and hoping I would get here. But you never know. I just wanted this opportunity.”
Ranked by Baseball America as the Brewers’ No. 4 prospect, Morris, a nonroster invitee, more than earned his opportunity this spring with a breakout season for the Double-A Huntsville Stars last season. The Brewers’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, he led the Southern League in hits (158), home runs (28), RBI (128), slugging percentage (.563) and total bases while also being named the Southern League Most Valuable Player.
“There wasn’t any one thing I did last year,” said Morris, 24. “It was just the culmination of a lot of work over the years at every step on the way to that point. Everything finally clicked at the same time.”
As impressive as Morris was at the plate, his defense is what caught the attention of his teammates.
“What really impressed me was his defense at first base,” pitcher Brandon Kintzler said. “He was great over there. When I saw him after he got drafted, his defense was, well, it needed a lot of work. But he worked at it every day, each season and then last year he won a Gold Glove. That’s impressive.”
Making the Auburn University product and 2010 Southeast Conference Player of the Year’s 2012 season even more enjoyable was that he was playing for his hometown team.
“Being in Huntsville and being able to be with my family last season was nice,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t hurt your productivity to be at home. But what I was able to do last year was because of the work I put in last year and in previous years.”
Morris’ breakthrough season didn’t exactly come out of the blue. In 2011, he hit .271 with a single-season franchise record 19 home runs for the Brewers’ Brevard County (Fla.) Single-A team. Still, his improvement in 2012 was significant.
One area Morris may be able to improve in 2013 is his selectivity at the plate. He struck out 117 times in 2012 in just 136 games, a far greater rate than in either of his two previous professional seasons.
“I always want to cut down on strikeouts, of course,” he said. “Putting the ball in play is always better. I didn’t panic about strikeouts last year. I was having such a productive year that I didn’t feel like it was the right time to change my approach. This spring, I’m trying to work on my routine and doing what’s always worked for me. I’m doing the things as far as preparation and work that have made me successful to this point.”
The left-handed hitting Morris’ approach has impressed his teammates in the major league clubhouse.
“As a young guy, he’s coming in here trying to earn a spot on the roster,” second baseman Rickie Weeks said. “The biggest thing a young guy can do is be humble and work hard and, Hunter, he’s doing that. We’ve noticed that. He’s got the tools to be a big-league player. Now he has to work for it.”
For his part, Morris appreciates the support of veterans like Weeks and is happy to see some of his minor league teammates in camp as well.
“This is a great atmosphere,” he said. “Everybody here is very helpful to the young guys on the field and in the clubhouse. They set a good example and give you something to look up to. It’s been great to have some familiar faces around, too — guys you can hang out with and that you’ve played with before.”
With only one hit in 16 at-bats, Morris is off to a slow start this spring. Still, even with a hot spring it is unlikely he will get extended action at Miller Park this season. Incumbent first baseman Cory Hart hopes to return from his knee injury before June, and the Brewers are committed to using Alex Gonzalez and others at first in the meantime. However, Hart’s contract expires at the end of 2013, and even if the Brewers do resign him, he may return to right field.
Morris knows what his future could hold but remains focused on the work in front of him and on improving his game.
“I’m going about my business,” he said. “I’m just preparing for baseball, wherever it is. Huntsville, (Triple-A) Nashville or Milwaukee. I just need to get ready to play baseball. I want to get to Milwaukee, but I’m not on the 40-man roster and I know there are financial and service time things involved. I’m going to work hard, and I know the team will tell me what I need to do to get to Milwaukee.”