ARLINGTON, Texas — Rangers manager Ron Washington has taken some baby steps toward making first baseman Mitch Moreland an every-day player, but he’s not ready to take the plunge. Moreland broke open Wednesday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles with a grand slam and then delivered an opposite-field double Thursday to break a 4-4 tie and fuel a six-run inning.
As a defensive player, he’s far superior to anyone else Washington can pencil in at first base. And now the manager isn’t automatically pinch-hitting for him to avoid facing left-handed relievers. So I asked Washington on Thursday night whether Moreland was making it tough for him to not to pencil him into the lineup every day.
“No, it’s not tough,” Washington told FOXSportsSouthwest.com. “When I decide it’s the right time, then I’ll do it.”
The manager chose not to elaborate on that answer. But for now, it sounds like Moreland will continue to sit against left-handed pitchers. There was a time when Washington took that approach with left fielder David Murphy, but this season Murphy is destroying left-handed pitching. His recent surge has led to diminished playing time for center fielder Craig Gentry.
One of the things Murphy struggled with in past seasons was putting too much pressure on himself to produce because he didn’t know if he’d be in the lineup the following day. He would turn each at-bat into an enormous challenge instead of relaxing and trying to see good pitches. Moreland’s not wired like Murphy in that he has an extremely laidback demeanor. He was undermined by a broken bone in his wrist last season that sapped his power and caused him to fade dramatically down the stretch. There were no signs of the player who emerged as a key contributor in the 2010 postseason.
Now, the Rangers are being reminded how valuable it is to have a left-handed bat with some pop other than Hamilton and Murphy. Moreland is 8-for-21 with seven RBI over the past six games and he’s raised his season average to .291. He wants to be in the lineup every day just like every other player on the roster, but the 26-year-old has never been one to complain. He believes the work he put in while he was on the DL (hamstring) in July is paying off now.
“I definitely feel better,” Moreland said. “I couldn’t do much running while I was on the DL, so I spent a lot of time trying to work on getting in a better hitting position. It’s something I worked on. I wanted to grind out at-bats better. I feel like I’ve done that for the most part.”
If Moreland has a strong performance down the stretch this season, the Rangers will have an interesting decision to make. It’s obvious the front office believes that Mike Olt is ready to take the next step. And with Olt being blocked at third base by All-Star Adrian Beltre, it makes the most sense for him to play first base. The Rangers don’t look at him as a platoon player. And at this point, they obviously don’t like starting Moreland against left-handers (he’s 7-for-32 with two HRs this season).
It might behoove the Rangers to give Moreland a trial run as an every-day player given the way he’s performed since returning from the DL. Following the 2010 postseason and the first couple of months of 2011, it seemed like Moreland was headed that way. Now, he’s making the Rangers at least think about that scenario again. And it’s well-established that Washington trusts veteran players over young prospects.
On Thursday, Moreland came to the plate with Adrian Beltre on third and Nelson Cruz on first, with one out. He worked the count against Twins reliever Jared Burton to 2-and-0 before belting a changeup to the gap in left center. That gave the Rangers a 5-4 lead and set the stage for yet another big inning for the team.
Moreland insists the arrival of Olt had nothing to do with his recent outburst, but you can’t help but think all the hoopla surrounding a top prospect might add some fire to his game. The Rangers will have to figure out this offseason where Olt fits into the future plans.
And it appears that Moreland won’t allow it to be an easy decision. As the Rangers sprint toward the postseason, he’s no longer an afterthought.