Playing in hometown, Morris pushes for Triple Crown
Southern League slugger impresses Brewers with bat, improved defense in Huntsville
MILWAUKEE -- Regardless of what he does on the field, Hunter Morris has it better than your typical Minor League baseball player.When Morris wraps up a day at the park, he doesn't go to a lonely apartment or spare bedroom to bide his time before the next game. Instead, he goes to a house not far from Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville, Ala., where the 23-year-old first-base prospect is greeted by his wife and son.
This house Morris heads to every night that he's not on the road with the Brewers' Double-A team isn't just a home. It's his home -- the one his parents first took him to after he was born."It's been a very fortunate situation for us," Morris said. "My wife is from Huntsville. I'm from Huntsville. Both sets of parents are around. It really is a great situation for all of us." Morris' parents moved to Huntsville almost 30 years ago. They lived in their first house there until he was about six months old, at which time they moved across the street. One more move came a few years later, but Morris' parents still owned their original house and rented it out for about 20 years. That is until Morris -- a fourth-round pick by the Brewers in 2010 -- was promoted from Class A Advanced Brevard County to play for the Huntsville Stars at the end of last season. He moved into his old house and appeared in just four games, but he's been a main attraction in Huntsville ever since. "It's been really special," Morris said. "I knew going into the season it was going to be exciting, just for the simple fact I was playing in front of my friends and family and all that. But to be fortunate enough to have the success I've had has just made it all that much better." The big numbers at the plate have brought the most attention to the hometown slugger. Morris entered Thursday ranked second in the Southern League in home runs (23) and RBIs (99), and fourth in batting average (.296), making him a serious Triple Crown threat. However, it's his improved defense that has people in the organization talking. In 130 games last season, Morris committed 19 errors, 17 of which came at first base. To put that in perspective, just four Major League first basemen committed 10 or more errors last season. Prince Fielder led the way with 15. This season has been an entirely different story for Morris, as he's committed just four miscues in 126 games. "He's always been able to swing the bat, and I think defense was an area guys wanted him to improve in," said Brewers professional scouting director Zack Minasian. "And he's done it. Give him credit for that." Huntsville manager Darnell Coles gives Morris all the credit for turning what was once a glaring weakness into a potential strength. Defense has been a focus for the Stars this season, Coles said, because even more so than winning games, the first-year manager and former Milwaukee hitting coordinator knows his job is to help players improve. Morris has done just that in the field, and Coles said it's increased his confidence and made him better in every aspect of the game. "You're not worried about when the ball's being hit to you, you just make a play," Coles said. "I think he's done a lot of good things. One of the best has been his defense. And without worrying about that, now that helps you go to the plate, see the ball and hit the ball." Coles praised Morris for his work ethic and play on the field, and he hasn't been the only one to notice. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin visited Huntsville recently, and he came back saying that Morris was the best hitter in the Southern League. And if Morris continues to play well, he could end up being a factor in how Milwaukee handles first base in the coming years. "I think that's probably more of an offseason discussion," Minasian said. "The good thing about [Major Leaguer] Corey [Hart] is -- and not that you want to get into moving guys around all the time -- but you do have flexibility. Say Corey is playing first base next year in May, and Hunter Morris is hitting .370 down there and we say, 'We have to get this kid's bat in the lineup.' You can do that.
"I don't think anything is ever set in stone. Right now, the focus for Hunter is to be the best first baseman he can be. It could be a situation where we've got Corey, we obviously still like [Mat] Gamel, and we have Morris -- that's a good problem to have."Morris, who likely will be with Triple-A Nashville next season, hasn't looked that far ahead yet. His focus remains on finishing the season strong in Huntsville, where he said there's "a lot of extra stuff and extra expectations when you're in your hometown."
But there have not been many -- if any -- expectations Morris hasn't met. As the season winds down, he's considered a favorite to win the Southern League MVP Award, which hasn't been taken home by a Stars player since 2003 (Hart)."Any time you get recognized with something that big, it's a great feeling," Morris said. "Just to be mentioned in that category is probably enough. If it upholds and I do happen to win, that would be incredible. Baseball's a very humbling game. There's 20 other guys that are just as deserving in this league." Coles respectfully disagrees. "No question [Morris is the MVP]," Coles said. "Not because he's my guy, but because he's been the best player in the league the entire season. He's done everything that MVPs do. Now it's just a matter of if he gets the vote or not."
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.