Kendry Morales: Mark Teixeira 2.0?

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Kendry Morales: Mark Teixeira 2.0?
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A year ago the Angels allowed Mark Teixeira to bolt town, leaving what many thought was a huge vacancy in the middle of their lineup. Doing very little in the offseason to fill that void, the Angels left the keys to first base to their solid, but unspectacular Cuban defector, Kendry Morales.

It would be his fourth time up in the big leagues and his first real shot at carving a full-time role with the big league club. Without having added any big ticket item in the offseason and from a sheer personnel standpoint, the Angels might have made one of the best (but most underrated) moves of the offseason.

Not only did they save over $21 million by slotting Morales in at first base, they also barely missed a beat production-wise. Let’s take a look:

566 At Bats
.306 Batting Average (128 Hits)
34 Home Runs
108 RBI
86 Runs
3 Stolen Bases
.355 On Base Percentage
.569 Slugging Percentage
.335 Batting Average on Balls in Play

Morales had one of the most unnoticed breakout campaigns in a long while. In his first full season of major league action, he fared quite well in comparison to his predecessor. Morales ranked sixth in the AL in home runs (Teixeira was first), fifth in the AL in RBI (Teixeira was first), second in the AL in slugging percentage (Teixeira was third) and eighth in the AL in OPS (Teixeira was third).

Even more astounding was his defense, making only eight errors at first base and sporting a nifty 5.0 UZR/150 rating-even higher than Teixeira’s -4.1 UZR/150.

We all know however, that fantasy baseball doesn’t care about defense, nor does it care about the salaries of players in real life. What we want is production.

Those who took a chance on Morales this season (an average draft spot of 260 in ESPN leagues) surely made noise in their fantasy leagues. What perplexes me more is the fact that Morales was still only owned in just 90 percent of ESPN leagues. Am I missing something?

When looking at Morales’ numbers, the season he had was spectacular, but I’m still left with questions regarding his sustainability. After all, this power surge was nothing like any in his minor/major league career. The most home runs he hit was 21 back in Cuba, or 22 at High-A and Double-A in 2005.

At 22-years old when he hit that many home runs, it looked like Morales was on his way to becoming a solid home run hitter at the major league level. Then, as he played in both Triple-A and the majors in parts of the next three seasons, his power dipped to a disturbingly low level.

In 2006 (AAA and MLB) he hit 17 home runs in 2007 (AAA and MLB) he hit just 9 home runs in 107 games and then in 2008 (Arizona League, AAA, MLB) he found the power stroke again, hitting 19 home runs in 110 games.

Still, the question remains: should we expect another 30 home runs from Morales next season?

We know Teixeira is a 30+ home run hitter, so for the sake of this argument we’ll use him as the basis for comparison. Morales’ hit rates in 2009 compared favorably to the rest of his time in the majors. His line-drive rate of 16.8 percent was a career high, but his fly-ball rate of 41.1 percent  (career for Teixera: 39.5 percent) was pretty much spot on with his career 39.8 percent rate.

What jumped this season though, was his 18.1 percent HR/FB rate (career for Teixeira: 18.9 percent), which is quite more than his 14.8 percent career rate.

Even in his time throughout the minor leagues, Morales only had a FB% of 36.8 percent and wasn’t exactly rocketing home runs left-and-right. His best season’s saw him more as a good hitter, .337 AVG in the minors, as opposed to a big power guy, 85 HR in 1,774 AB.

Morales’ .335 BABIP is high compared (.305 BABIP) to the rest of his time in the majors, but is lower than his minor league mark of .353. Naturally, he could have a higher BABIP next season, equating to an even better batting average. Still, he struck out 117 times this season, while walking just 46 times, so that will always put a dent in his average.

Taking his game to the next level, even if he loses some power, will certainly be contingent on him developing a better eye at the plate. Teixeira is a lock for over 110 strikeouts, but he walks around 80 times a year. Morales is inexperienced at the major league level, so it will take a little time for him to develop. He has the ability to: he only struck out 166 times in 1,187 at-bats in the minors.

Next season the Angels will most likely lose Vladimir Guerrero. Even though he played in 100 games, he was still a potent bat to have in your lineup. Thus, Morales will lose that protection. Chone Figgins may be on his way out as well, so one of the better table-setters may also be gone.

The Angels may be in play for some other free agents, but I wouldn’t expect a huge splash. It’s definitely worth monitoring, as Morales’ production could suffer slightly.

Either way I see Morales as a solid, middle-of-the-order run-producer. As a switch hitter, he hits equally well from both sides of the plate. Further, he seemed to get better as the season developed: hitting 19 home runs and batting .330 after the all-star break. While I’m not sold on another mid-30s home run season, I do think he can hit in the mid-to-upper 20s.

Here are my projections: .310 AVG, 28 HR, 115 RBI, 88 R -still excellent, even with the power drop.

What do you guys think? Will Morales be better in 2010?

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