23-year-old catcher Rodolfo Durán earned the chance to work with some experienced pitchers this spring training, having been invited to big-league camp. But in his debut season for Double-A Reading, Durán is most excited for the youngest player on the team to serve as his battery mate.
And who would that pitcher be?
“Right now, this guy I have next to me — Morales,” Durán said Monday at their group press availability on Fightin Phils media day.
Of course, he was referring to Francisco Morales, the 21-year-old right-handed pitcher signed out of Venezuela in 2016. He’s the No. 4-ranked prospect in the latest Phillies Nation top prospect list, and for good reason; The 6-foot-4-inch right-hander has a repertoire that’ll impress a backstop with experience catching major leaguers.
“He’s got the stuff to dominate those guys hitting [in Double-A],” Durán raved about his new teammate. “He’s got a good slider, his fastball is heavy.”
Morales was assigned to Double-A this season after a strong 2019 campaign in low Single-A Lakewood, where he posted a 3.82 ERA with 12 strikeouts per nine innings in 27 outings at just 19 years old.
Last year was a bit of a road block in Morales’ development, as the cancellation of the minor-league season due to the pandemic took away his age-20 season. He admitted he didn’t get a ton of competitive work in 2020 until the Phillies’ instructional league for prospects in the fall. The righy still insists he’s “ready to be here.”
“I feel excited to be here with my team,” Morales said of Reading. “I’m ready to play.”
The jump to Double-A baseball is a challenge for any pitcher, but especially one who hasn’t pitched a minor-league game since Sept. 1, 2019. Add in the fact that he’ll be pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark in Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium, and it seems to be a tough task. Morales says he’s up to the challenge.
“I hear it’s good hitters [in Double-A],” he said. “It’s OK, I just try to do my job.”
Fightins manager Shawn Williams is looking forward to seeing what the young prospect will be able to do at the higher classification. He echoed his catcher’s praise of Morales’ fastball and slider. Both Williams and Durán noted his changeup as a key pitch as well, one that he’s working on that could take his game to the next level.
“His changeup is huge for him,” Williams said. “That’s a pitch that, when he’s utilizing it, he’s really special.”
The second-year manager has only seen Morales pitch a few times so far, including an solid outing last week at the Phillies’ alternate site in Lehigh Valley. That’ll change Wednesday night, when the right-hander will start the second game of the season at home for the Fightin Phils.
His season debut may not be a long outing for Morales. Reading is mostly using a “piggyback” system for starting pitchers to start this season. Southpaw Ethan Lindow was scheduled to pitch four innings to start the Fightins’ opener on Tuesday night, while right-hander Julian Garcia was set to follow him with three. Lindow ended up only throwing three innings and Garcia threw 1 2/3 innings — both due to high pitch counts — in the 12-4 loss to the Erie SeaWolves.
There is no piggyback starter scheduled to follow Morales in his first outing. However, the same concept will apply. It won’t be an extended appearance, as the Fightin Phils are working to ease their pitchers into this season after having all of the last one off.
Morales’ impending Double-A debut will help signal his current status within the organization. The promotion to Double-A typically sends a message that a prospect could be nearing an even more important call-up in the near future — the one to the major leagues. That doesn’t mean he’ll break into the majors this year, but it also doesn’t mean he won’t. Plus, Morales’ placement on the 40-man roster this past offseason would make that process even easier.
The right-hander said that hearing he received a 40-man roster spot was a happy moment for him. Morales also acknowledged that a major-league promotion may not be too far out at this point in his career, but seems to be more focused on taking care of the things he can control and letting the Phillies organization handle the rest.
“When they need me, I’ll go to the big leagues,” he said. “When they need me.”
For now, Morales’ goal will be to build innings and refine his skills at the minor-league level. His manager has a few things to anticipate watching in the short-term.
“Just seeing him get to Double-A, compete and see what he can do,” Williams said.
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