Moran eyes big league opportunity with Pirates

Acquired in Cole deal, slugger hopes to prove himself in Pittsburgh

Colin Moran totaled 28 homers and 132 RBIs in 196 games over the last two seasons with Triple-A Fresno. (Ben Sandstrom/MiLB.com)

By Alex Kraft / MiLB.com | January 29, 2018 10:00 AM ET

For Colin Moran, this trade was nothing like the first one.

When Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow dialed Moran's number on Jan. 18 to tell him he'd been dealt to Pittsburgh, the player who answered bore little resemblance to the one Houston had pried away from the Marlins at the 2014 Trade Deadline.

The Moran the Astros acquired more than three years ago came with hype. Taken sixth overall in the 2013 Draft and ranked as MLB.com's No. 64 overall prospect at the end of the 2014 season, few doubted he would easily hit his way to the big leagues.

This Moran, however, had experienced real adversity. He successfully reinvented himself and tasted Major League success, then faced adversity again. Now he was leaving the reigning World Series champions for a new team in an unfamiliar city, ready to prove himself all over again.

***

Moran's difficulties began during the 2016 season, his second full year in Houston's system. After batting .306 in 96 games a year earlier with Double-A Corpus Christi, the left-handed-hitting third baseman stumbled to a career-low .259/.329/.368 slash line with 10 homers and 69 RBIs in 117 games with Triple-A Fresno.

He did not fare much better in the big leagues. After an 0-for-13 start, he finished 3-for-23 with one extra-base hit in nine games with the Astros.

Moran understood something had to change. He turned to Jeff Albert, the Astros' hitting coordinator who now serves as the club's assistant hitting coach.

"He lives right down the street from me here in Jupiter, Florida," Moran said. "We got to work right away and it was great. He's a lot of fun to work with."

The two focused on correcting Moran's low contact rate and improving his power. They closed his stance, moved his hands higher and shortened his load time, eliminating a significant amount of pre-swing movement.

"Long story short, I just simplified," Moran said. "I simplified my swing, simplified my movements during my swing and took out the unnecessary movements. Kind of became more compact and powerful through the swing."

By the time Spring Training arrived, the University of North Carolina product could feel the difference. He continued to tweak things and adjust during the first month of the season. Back in Fresno for a second straight year, he hit .250 in 22 games in April.

"I didn't necessarily struggle in April, but I went through maybe some getting used to things," Moran explained. "I felt a lot more comfortable as the season went on with my swing and finding out what my new weaknesses were compared to the old ones and some of the bad habits that I had."

By May, things had begun to click. Moran hit .310 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 18 games that month, then batted .327 with nine long balls and 26 RBIs in 26 games in June. He hit .360 through 13 games in July, raising his average with the Grizzlies to .308, which was enough for the Astros' front office. When it called up Moran on July 18, he had 18 homers, 12 shy of his career total over the previous four seasons, and 63 RBIs in 79 contests.

The 25-year-old kept raking in the Majors. In his first game against Baltimore on July 21, he went 2-for-4 and clubbed his first big league homer. Moran felt vindicated.

"Success is always nice to kind of reaffirm what you're working on," he said. "I had confidence that if I worked hard and stuck to what I'm trying to do that I could play anywhere and have success anywhere. It was nice to get into a big league game and feel comfortable. You get that sense of belonging."

Those good feelings suddenly took a terrifying turn.

Months later, Moran laughed at the oddness of the play. Back on July 22, in his second big league game of the season, there was fear and concern after he fouled a pitch from Orioles right-hander Darren O'Day off his left cheek and eye. Moran was carted off the field and hospitalized, undergoing surgery a week later in Houston to repair a facial fracture. 

The injury sidelined the 6-foot-4, 204-pound slugger for more than a month -- he began a rehab assignment with Class A Quad Cities on Aug. 31.

"I'm really thankful for the surgeons in Houston and [Astros head athletic] trainer Jeremiah [Randall] that was with me for that night," he said. "The only tough part was really going into the surgery, praying that everything goes well. Once that was over with and you see the light at the end of the day, you just push to get back. That's the easy part."

While Moran made a full recovery, the setback derailed his promising run in Houston. With Alex Bregman entrenched at third base, he received only a handful of pinch-hitting appearances down the stretch and did not see any action in the playoffs.

***

Despite a crowded infield picture in Houston heading into 2018, leaving a team that just won the World Series and was home for more than three seasons wasn't going to be easy for Moran. So the news he was going to the Pirates in the package for hard-throwing righty Gerrit Cole was bittersweet.

"They won the World Series for a reason," the Port Chester, New York, native said. "They're really talented. ... I really feel like I developed thanks to their staff. They do things the right way from the top down.

"Being in that clubhouse and that locker room was some of the most fun I've had, being around so much talent and so many good guys. Whether it was the older guys or the younger guys, everybody was together."

Moran joins a team in Pittsburgh that, like the Astros, is on the younger side. Unlike Houston, the Pirates have entered a rebuilding phase, following the Cole trade by sending franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen to the Giants. 

"From everything I've heard, it's a great group of guys," he said.

Offseason MiLB include

Still classified as a rookie, Moran should have every opportunity to compete for the starting third base job in Pittsburgh, a chance he would not have had in Houston. Projections rank Moran roughly even with incumbent David Freese in terms of WAR (0.8 vs. 0.9), while the Pirates' depth chart on MLB.com lists Moran atop the third base hierarchy.

Still, he said he knows better than to take anything for granted. And his task is just beginning.

"There's still a lot to prove," Moran said. "Having some success [last season] was a nice reward for the hard work, but I'm looking forward to putting that toward a full season.

"I'm obviously very excited to get to [Spring Training] and get around a bunch of new staff and a lot of people that haven't seen me before. I'm trying to show them what I'm all about, and they'll be looking to get to know me day in and day out. I'll work hard and try to seize the opportunity."

Alex Kraft is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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