Frisco, Texas —— Truth be told, Josh Morgan probably deserved a spot on the Frisco RoughRiders a season ago.
Just 21 years old then, the Texas Rangers prospect was coming off a stellar 2016 season with (now defunct) High Desert of the High-A California League where he’d hit .300/.367/.394/.761 across 128 games as an everyday infield starter. Along the way, he’d helped the Mavericks win the Cal League title while showing off remarkable plate discipline and barrel control (just 61 strikeouts and 44 walks in 470 at-bats) and exemplary defensive versatility across an infield littered with prospects around him.
So when the Rangers promoted virtually that entire High Desert core to Frisco for the 2017 season except for Josh Morgan — instead choosing to send the southern California native back to High-A for a repeat in 2017, this time out to Down East of the Carolina League — he didn’t take it so well. Sure, Morgan was adding a major defensive transition to his plate—he now splits catching duties with Rangers mainstay Jose Trevino multiple times a week, still playing middle infield on his off days—but the young prospect assumed he’d done enough to stay with his cohort and reach Double-A ahead of schedule, even while being tasked with learning a pitching staff for the first time.
“While it was happening last year [in Down East], I was like, ‘man, I really don’t want to do this,'” Morgan admitted Friday afternoon before a RoughRiders game. “But looking back now, the Rangers really knew what they were doing with me. To come here and to be catching for the first time in Double-A, that’s tough enough as it is, so getting sent back to High-A [in 2017] really helped to prepare me. Plus, it was good to feel hitting in the Carolina League. That’s a lot different of a league to hit in than the California League. I learned more about my swing, I learned more behind the plate, and I think I became a better, more full player.”
The Texas Rangers evidently agreed with that sentiment enough to send Josh Morgan to the prestigious Arizona Fall League last offseason after his time in Down East, too. In Phoenix, Morgan spent his days alternating starts behind the plate with catching hundreds of bullpen sessions for some of baseball’s best young hurlers. That experience—along with 44 career official minor league regular season games behind the plate, as of Sunday morning—has pushed Morgan far up the learning curve compared to where he was 18 months ago. Now equipped to handle a pitching staff and direct traffic behind the plate, dare say it, the 22-year old is starting to look like a natural catcher who’s been back there his entire career.
“I feel a lot more comfortable back there now, but I wouldn’t say it’s second nature quite yet,” Morgan offered. “Obviously, I have the best catcher in the minor leagues with me right here in Jose Trevino, and I watch him all the time. Being around him and picking up the mental side of catching, that’s helped me a lot, and he’s really helped me on how to position myself and things like that. Of course, the more I’m back there, the more I learn on my own, too.”
Suddenly, as he continues to improve defensively, Josh Morgan finds himself in a new prospect conversation. Previously, he’d been the jack-of-all-trades infielder likely to top out as a up-and-down utility man with some big league potential based on his feel for the barrel, but not quite enough defensive upside or projection at the plate to lock down an everyday role. Now, with catching duties thrown on top, he not only has a viable path to The Show, but a friend within the organization after whom he can model his game: Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
“Iz,” as Morgan calls him, has held his own this year in his first taste of the big leagues, slashing .247/.320/.352/.672 as of Sunday while staring a few dozen times across the infield and a handful of times behind the plate for the big-league Rangers up in Arlington. That’s the exact path Morgan knows he can take, now, too — in an organization that very clearly values the versatility and roster flexibility that comes with it.
“Iz is one of my boys,” Morgan said. “We talk a lot. We talked a lot in spring training about how, hey, this is our position. No one really does what we do, like how we can go play infield and then catch. And now seeing what he’s doing in the big leagues, hitting like he is up there, it’s getting me going. It gets me excited for him. And it gets me excited for my own future, as well, because I know the Rangers value versatility, and the more positions I prove I can play, the more valuable I can be. But hats off to Iz for doing his thing on the biggest stage. He deserves it.”
A couple hours after our Friday afternoon chat, Josh Morgan connected for his first home run of the 2018 season, and first career homer at the Double-A level — a beautiful, towering shot to left-center field that landed high up the berm 440-something feet away from home plate at Dr. Pepper Ballpark:
Maybe that’s the swing that gets him going offensively this year, though if it is, it’ll be a little ahead of schedule. Morgan—now in his fifth year of professional baseball—is a notoriously slow starter. A pedestrian slash line of just .233/.314/.333/.647 right now through 23 games with Frisco is nothing new for the Texas Rangers farmhand; Morgan has experienced a slow start—sometimes a month, sometimes the entire first half, but always there—in every full season of his career. It’s become such a given after Opening Day rolls around that Morgan no longer worries about it, choosing instead to laugh it off and bide his time until he finds his footing and inevitably gets hot at the plate.
“You know, I’ve never really wanted to accept the fact that I’m a slow starter, but man, it’s really starting to seem like I’m a slow starter,” Morgan acknowledged, grinning ear to ear as if incredulous at the consistency of this unwanted habit. “And then every year a month or two in, or starting in the second half, it’s always my time where I actually get after it. It is a little frustrating. I always go into the season thinking, ‘hey, this is my year to come out hot,’ and then when it doesn’t happen, I get down on myself and start thinking too much. But this year, I’m not doing that. I feel like my swing will come around how I want it to, and I really do feel comfortable at the plate.”
Maybe he’s not too far off from breaking out, then. As strong a contact hitter as he’s been throughout his career, it feels like Josh Morgan is never far from shaking off the sluggishness and spraying line drives foul line to foul line again; give him time, it seems, and he’ll find barrels. He’s already made some adjustments to Double-A pitching — “you’re not getting fastballs in fastball counts up here any more, and you’re not just getting velocity,” Morgan admitted — and now, the future lies firmly at the feet of the versatile Texas Rangers prospect. Feeling more at home behind the plate every day, and almost certainly soon-to-be-at home beside it once again, too, Josh Morgan is on the cusp of pushing his career to the next level for good.
It all came together in Frisco one year later than expected — and yet, somehow, right on time.
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