Josh Morgan is just about to turn 24, and he’ll spend the first couple months of his 25th year on this planet playing its greatest game in one of its greatest locations.
The Rangers’ infielder/catching prospect left for New Zealand on Sunday, where he and four other Rangers minor leaguers will play for the Auckland Tuatara of the Australian Baseball League. For Morgan, it’ll be his first regular game action in over a year, and he’s just as excited to get back on the field as he is to go to on what would otherwise be a pretty bomb destination package.
“Who thinks about playing baseball in New Zealand? You think about New Zealand, it’s a vacation spot,” Morgan said. “It’s just something you’re not used to it all. It should be different, but definitely an experience of a lifetime.”
If you ever wanted to see a baseball team perform the Haka before a game, it seems like New Zealand would be the place to find it.
Morgan says he’s looking forward to experiencing the culture and everything that New Zealand has to offer, but this is also very much a trip where he’ll be looking to get his game back on track.
Morgan was drafted by the Rangers in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft out of Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California. He was thought to be a good athlete and a strong defender who, like many young middle infield types, had scouts questioning how much he would hit.
But he showed a decent hit tool and an advanced approach at every stop throughout his first two and a half seasons of pro ball, and he climbed the minor league ladder in a very linear fashion, hopping up a level each year. A .367 OBP at High-A High Desert (remember High Desert?) was the lowest number he posted. Across four levels he walked 118 times and struck out 137.
The combo of his offensive numbers and his good defense across three infield positions led to Morgan making some appearances on the LSB Community Prospect Rankings, most recently at #19 in the middle of the 2017 season.
In 2017 the Rangers started to get a little experimental with both Morgan and fellow middle-infield farmhand Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who was a level above Morgan. Both were told they’d be getting some reps at catcher leading into that Spring Training in addition to their normal 2B/3B/SS duties.
Morgan caught 36 games in 2017 at High-A Down East and 38 games at Double-A Frisco in 2018. I can’t speak for 2017 but I saw him behind the plate several times in Frisco and he held his own, served well by his quick hands and athleticism that helped him compensate for his newness to the position. But as one would assume, this is quite a workload increase for a young player, from both a mental and a physical standpoint.
“Catching is just different,” Morgan said, noting that he was leading into games doing prep work for both catching and infield duties along with the everyday scouting reports on opposing pitchers. “It’s twice the amount of work, that’s why I have so much respect for catchers. It’s a hard position, your legs are gone by the third or fourth inning, you’re more exhausted mentally than you are physically after nine innings of baseball.”
It’s a slog of a position, especially for a guy who’s new to it, not to mention Morgan sports a more infield-friendly frame at 5’11, 190 lbs. And it appeared to take its toll on him.
Morgan played in only 83 games in 2018. Back in Frisco for 2019, he broke his hamate bone on opening night. On the cusp of returning from that, he tore multiple ligaments in his wrist, and that ended his 2019 season. A broken hamate was a very trendy Ranger injury in 2019, and Morgan mentioned talking to Joey Gallo about the injury, Gallo asking Morgan about the pain and the rehab process, etc. Morgan said both players were frustrated by not being able to get back on the field in 2019.
Morgan spent the 2019 offseason healing up, and says he feels better health-wise now than he has in a year and a half. He’s been focusing on stretching and improving flexibility and he seems genuinely pumped to be getting back on the field for the first time since 2018, if you don’t count the one game he played in 2019.
So this trip to New Zealand for Morgan is as much of a chance for him to right the ship as it is for him to gain some personal enrichment and growth by spending two months in a faraway place.
“Just to play, let alone play baseball in New Zealand. It’s the best of both worlds,” Morgan said when asked what he was looking forward to about the trip. “It just feels good to be healthy again. I’ve been working hard for a while now to try and continue to improve my body and make sure I’m in the best shape possible so that I won’t get hurt again.”
Part of that might come from a lessening in the amount of games he spends behind the plate, and it sounds like the Rangers are going to use Morgan primarily as an infielder in 2020. Morgan says he won’t catch as many games in the upcoming season, but he still feels like he could get behind the plate if or when he’s needed to.
Obviously, he needs his health. But I think guys like Morgan are kind of indicative of the farm system overhaul the Rangers have gone through in the past two or three seasons. He’s fallen off the Rangers prospect rankings, understandably, given he hasn’t played, along with the influx of other talent the Rangers have brought to the system. But Morgan’s a guy who’s flashed at times in the minors, and his ability to play strong defense at multiple infield positions is going to benefit his game going forward.
If he keeps the good approach at the plate, he could contribute at the Major League level, and add some depth to this wave of prospects that’s going to be coming in the next season or two. If the catching comes around, and I got the feeling that neither player nor organization is going to totally abandon it, we’ve seen firsthand how that little trick can carve out a role for a player on a big-league squad.
Morgan has the makeup to play in the Majors, which could be one of the reasons why the Rangers felt comfortable tapping him to play catcher in the first place. When asked what he needs to do in order to get to the highest level, Morgan reemphasized staying healthy and playing multiple positions.
“And then, obviously,” Morgan added. “If you rake you’re gonna get a shot.”