Projection project

The first thing to know about baseball projections is that they have a tendency to approach meaninglessness. When I was covering the Oakland A's circa 2002, the only question about Eric Chavez was how long it would take him to become better than Eddie Mathews. How's that working out?

Injuries happen. Lack of motivation happens. Divorce happens. Crying babies happen. Not necessarily in that order.

These guys are living in the real world, like most of the rest of us. How would a projection look of your next year on the job? OK, now ask your boss.

The next thing to know about them is that they're ultra-fashionable. And since nobody gets hurt, what's the harm? If you're building a fantasy team in a high-stakes league, why wouldn't you take advantage of projections? For that matter, if you're building a real team in a very high-stakes league, why wouldn't you?

Since I happen to think Kendry Morales will be the fulcrum on which the Angels' offense hinges in 2010, I took my editor's advice and asked around: Can the Cuban crusher repeat his breakout 2009?

He parlayed his first everyday job into a .306 batting average, 34 home runs, 43 doubles and 108 RBIs. He was only the fourth Angel to go .300/30/100. The others were Doug DeCinces, Tim Salmon and Vladimir Guerrero (three times).

If Morales can repeat it or if he improves on it (is that out of the question for a 26-year-old?), the Angels should have one of the best lineups west of the Hudson. If he takes a big step back, the Angels could be in trouble. The rest of the beef in their lineup is on the wrong side of 30. Decline is inevitable and it might not be far off.

Like the best teams in baseball, we settled on a mix of statistical analysis and feet-on-the-ground scouting. We looked at two of the most respected compilers of data and talked to two of the most respected major league scouts who regularly see the AL West.

Both scouts (who were granted anonymity in keeping with league rules) have watched Morales since he entered the minor leagues in 2005. One of them was at his first workout for U.S. scouts in the Dominican Republic.

Scouts and stats geeks may never see eye-to-eye, but on the topic of Morales, they're holding hands and singing a benefit concert.

They're in almost perfect agreement: He's not going to be quite as good in his sophomore season. But he's not going to be much worse, either.

"The kind of swing he has, to me, works in the major leagues," Scout One said. "It's not a real whippy, snappy wrist swing. It's more of a natural, powerful swing, and from both sides. There's no reason to believe he'll tail off. I believe any team would be really happy with a guy who hits 30 home runs and drives in 100 runs. I just don't see any sophomore swoon."

Neither scout professed to being surprised at Morales' numbers. They both said they didn't expect him to take as long as he did to arrive. Neither expected him to become as good as he is with the mitt.

"The thing I was a little surprised about was his power," Scout Two said. "Thirty homers was a lot. I think this year they're going to pay a little more attention to how they pitch him. It will be interesting to see how the league makes adjustments and how he reacts to them."

The weird thing from the stats guys is how eerily similar their projections are. James pegs him for a .341 on-base percentage. BP has him at .343. James gives him a .516 slugging percentage. BP has him at .503.

I also asked ESPN's head stats guy, Mark Simon, to do some digging into Morales' defense.

Something called Baseball Info Solutions ranked Morales as the seventh-best fielding first baseman in baseball, behind Albert Pujols, Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, Casey Kotchman and Lyle Overbay.

Something called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) rated his range as fifth best among all first basemen who played at least 500 innings. If you raise the minimum to 1,000 innings, he ranks first.

Not bad for a guy some people thought would wind up as a designated hitter.

Basically, two paid professionals and two respected services told me what my eyes already had: The guy's a pretty good ballplayer.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.