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After surgery, recovery, Moran set for opportunity

Pirates acquired prospect in offseason, prepared to start him at third
MLB.com @adamdberry

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Nine days after being carted off the field at Camden Yards, Colin Moran was set for surgery at Houston Methodist Hospital. His father, Bill, was in the waiting room. Moran's fiancée, Kelsey, left his side and joined Bill with a pre-operation message from his son.

"Colin said to you, 'I hope during this that they don't have to shave my beard,'" Bill recalled, laughing. "Then, the other thing he said is, 'Gee, I wonder if I'm going to be traded after I come out of here.'"

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Nine days after being carted off the field at Camden Yards, Colin Moran was set for surgery at Houston Methodist Hospital. His father, Bill, was in the waiting room. Moran's fiancée, Kelsey, left his side and joined Bill with a pre-operation message from his son.

"Colin said to you, 'I hope during this that they don't have to shave my beard,'" Bill recalled, laughing. "Then, the other thing he said is, 'Gee, I wonder if I'm going to be traded after I come out of here.'"

It was July 31, MLB's non-waiver Trade Deadline. Their greatest concern was Moran's health, of course. That had been the case since Moran fouled a ball off his face and they spent the night with him in a downtown Baltimore trauma center, hoping and praying his vision and well-being would remain intact. Still, they scanned Twitter for Astros trade rumors.

"The main thought was making it through," Bill said. "But there was a small, little thought there."

Moran was not traded that day, and he eventually made it back onto the field in an Astros uniform. Nonetheless, the swing that hospitalized him may have changed the course of the 25-year-old's career and the Pirates' future at third base.

* * * * *

As they prepared for the 2013 Draft, the Pirates often discussed Moran. He had big league bloodlines, from his brother, Brian (a seventh-round pick in 2009), to his uncles, B.J. Surhoff (who spent 19 years in the Majors) and Rick Surhoff (who pitched professionally from 1982-89).

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Pittsburgh's scouts loved everything Moran did in the batter's box. They saw at least an average defensive third baseman. They thought his left-handed swing would add power over time.

But it wouldn't happen in the Pirates' system. Despite pre-Draft talk of the Astros taking him No. 1 overall, Moran went to the Marlins with the No. 6 pick. The Bucs selected outfielder Austin Meadows, now their No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, ninth overall. What if Moran had still been on the board?

"We're very happy with the player we got," general manager Neal Huntington said. "But we would have had a heck of a decision to make."

When the Marlins traded Moran to the Astros on July 31, 2014, the Pirates wondered if they had just missed their best chance to get him. But their scouts continued to track Moran, and they liked what they saw early last season. After altering his mechanics and approach with Houston hitting coordinator Jeff Albert, Moran was raking in Triple-A. His projected power finally showed up on a consistent basis, as he hit .308/.373/.543 with 18 homers in 79 games for Triple-A Fresno.

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"Here we are, all these years later," Huntington said, "and he's turned into that guy."

The Pirates expressed interest in acquiring that guy last summer. They had a need at third base, where Jung Ho Kang's continued absence thrust veteran David Freese into everyday work. But All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa went down on July 17 with a torn left thumb ligament that required surgery, and the Astros called up Moran as part of their backup plan.

"When he came up, I really thought he was going to play every day for the entire period that Correa was out, and that was going to be his chance to show he can do in the big leagues what he already has proven he can do in the Minor Leagues," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said.

Moran started at third, tripled and hit his first Major League home run on July 21, his first big league game of the season. His next game in the Majors was his last until Sept. 25.

"It was disappointing that he didn't get a chance to show us what he can do," Luhnow said, "because I have a feeling we were going to be impressed."

* * * * *

Moran started for the Astros at third base on July 22 at Camden Yards. In the stands were Kelsey, then his fiancée and now his wife, Bill, his father, and several other family members.

In the sixth inning, Moran swung at a slider from the sidearm delivery of Orioles reliever Darren O'Day. The ball deflected off Moran's bat and smashed into his left cheek. He stumbled out of the batter's box and fell to one knee, his left hand covering his left eye, then sat down with a towel pressed to his face. He slowly stood up with Astros manager A.J. Hinch, drawing applause from the Orioles' home crowd, then sat back down on the grass.

"You just feel dazed," Moran said. "It's confusing. I tried to get up, then I remembered feeling really dizzy. I remember just wanting to lie down really bad. It was confusing, but I remember it all."

Video: HOU@BAL: Moran fouls ball off face, is forced to exit

That alarmed Bill and Kelsey, who left their seats and rushed down into the ballpark tunnels. The first thing they saw was a thumbs up -- "to give us the sense that, 'OK, he's OK,'" Bill said. They followed Moran to the hospital and remained there, along with Astros head athletic trainer Jeremiah Randall, through the night.

The next morning, Randall asked Moran where he wanted to have surgery: Baltimore or Houston? Moran felt more comfortable with the Astros' team doctors in Houston. But there was a problem.

Moran had a concussion, a fractured orbital floor and other facial fractures. Doctors advised him to keep his mouth open, fearing the pressure from even a sneeze would aggravate his injuries and impair his vision. So that flight from Baltimore to Houston? Not an option.

That left Bill and Kelsey to get Moran clear across the southeastern United States. The Astros hooked up the family with a rental car, and Bill made the 1,400-mile drive in two days.

"Without them, I don't know what I would have done," Moran said.

After the operation came a period of rest and tests to check Moran's vision. Each day brought improvement. Eventually, after weeks in a hotel, it was time to go home. That meant Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. -- not far from the Astros' Spring Training complex in West Palm Beach, where Moran and Albert retooled his swing last offseason.

Moran still couldn't fly, though, so Bill got back behind the wheel. They drove straight through the night this time, Bill said -- whatever it took to get his son and Kelsey home.

"He likes to drive," Moran said, grinning.

If he didn't, he learned to like it. Moran grew up in New York, but southern states offered better baseball opportunities for him and Brian. So Diane and Bill would drive the boys to play in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. One summer, Bill figured, they racked up at least 35,000 miles and scheduled weekly oil changes.

With the driving done and his concussion tests passed, Moran checked into the Astros' facility. More eye tests. Light cardio on an exercise bike. After about a week, he started feeling closer to normal. Living at home -- where Bill described Kelsey's care as "unbelievable" -- made the rehab work easier for Moran.

"You quickly realize when you jump something too quick," Moran said. "I was pushing to do more every day, but the trainers were good at keeping me back."

On Aug. 31, a month after surgery, Moran began a Minor League rehab assignment. The Astros rewarded him with a September callup, but by the time he returned, Correa was back and Alex Bregman had established himself at third for the eventual World Series champions. The golden opportunity that once existed had vanished.

Video: Top Prospects: Colin Moran, 3B, Pirates

But none of that diminished the Pirates' interest in Moran.

* * * * *

Looking to reload its roster after consecutive losing seasons, Pittsburgh dealt staff ace Gerrit Cole to Houston on Jan. 13. The Astros sent back outfield prospect Jason Martin and three Major League-ready players whose paths were blocked: starter Joe Musgrove, reliever Michael Feliz and Moran.

Moran got the call after arriving at home in Rye, N.Y., for his niece's baptism. When he reported to Pirate City last month, he said the news was "bittersweet." But the chance to start intrigued him, and he's quickly come to enjoy his new environment.

"It's been awesome, much more than I could even ask for," Moran said. "They're really welcoming and eager to answer any questions I have about the organization or how things are run. It's been easy for me."

Video: PIT@MIN: Moran drives in run with a single to center

This isn't completely unfamiliar territory. Moran wasn't traded alone, so he knew Musgrove and Feliz from the start. Jacob Stallings was his freshman roommate at the University of North Carolina. Trevor Williams was a teammate in the Marlins' system. He'd crossed paths with Freese before, too. This offseason, Moran met Josh Bell while training at the Central Institute of Human Performance in Jupiter, Fla. Bell, also 25 years old, has become a fast friend -- and a fan -- inside the Bucs' clubhouse.

"He definitely knows what he's talking about and knows what he's doing," Bell said. "He's one of those guys that's fun to watch hit, fun to watch play."

Video: PIT@BAL: Moran smacks RBI double in the 3rd

The Pirates intend to make Moran their starting third baseman. They believe they got him at the right time. His former general manager agrees.

"I think he's an everyday third baseman, a guy who's going to hit for a really high batting average," Luhnow said. "He's going to have decent power and be an average defender at third. He certainly has the bloodlines. That's a guy that's got a lot of value."

* * * * *

If Correa hadn't been hurt, and Moran hadn't been called up, might Moran have been a Pirate last summer? If he hadn't swung at that slider from O'Day, would he have kept hitting his way into Houston's plan? If the ball had come off his bat at any other angle, would he be on the other side of Florida right now, looking for his name in the Astros' lineup?

These are questions Moran -- reserved, soft-spoken and focused -- does not seek to answer.

"Too many what ifs -- what if I don't get hurt, what if I do this, what if I do that?" said Moran, the Pirates' No. 8 prospect. "But I did get hurt. I'm here now, and I'm happy to be here. I try not to think about what if I stayed there."

Video: Moran on getting improving his game with the Pirates

So here Moran is, standing outside the Pirates' Spring Training clubhouse and grateful for the opportunity before him, with a short scar between his left eye and his thick red beard.

"I like where I am," Moran said. "Everything happens for a reason."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Colin Moran