Offseason Chronicles: First Base
By Eric Reining
While the playoffs are still underway, and while the Rangers are still not in the playoff field, the amount of content there is to evaluate and discuss has hit a turtle pace. There are no free agents at play, no legitimate trades to theorize, and, really, unless you are wont to perpetuate the lingering front office drama between Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan, you are shit outta luck for fresh Rangers-centric material.
Which is why I find Richard Durrett’s 10-part series over at ESPN Dallas so appealing; it’s not because the analysis is interesting — or even at all noteworthy — but rather, it’s something, and at this stage of the baseball season, something is better than nothing. Yesterday’s question revolved around 1st base, a position the Rangers’ front office will surely look to upgrade this offseason.
It’s no secret that Mitch Moreland is not Texas’s 1st baseman of the future, a label once bestowed on the two 1st baseman who preceded him, Chris Davis and Justin Smoak. Davis, as you recall, was shipped to the Orioles along with Tommy Hunter to acquire Koji Uehara in 2011, and the year before, Smoak was the blue chip piece in a trade with the Mariners to ascertain Cliff Lee. Despite a serviceable 2013 campaign (.238/.334/.412, 109 wRC+), Justin Smoak has largely been considered a bust in Seattle, and Chris Davis, well, I think we’re all aware of what he’s turned himself into in Baltimore.
Still, at the time of both of those trades, Jon Daniels accelerated the Rangers’ chances of winning the World Series. The Cliff Lee trade almost single-handedly took Texas to its first World Series appearance, and the Koji Uehara move only looks bad in retrospect, not because Koji didn’t perform as advertised, but because Chris Davis finally showed the ability he flashed only on occasion during his time in Arlington.
Mitch Moreland, on the other hand, was never in the same prospect class as either Smoak (a consensus top-10 prospect) or Davis (generally falling between the top-50 and top-100), so less has always been expected out of him. For the Rangers, his role was to be the caretaker at 1st base, not to someday become a reliable middle-of-the-order weapon. To that end, his first 3 years could be considered a success.
But it’s clear that a change is needed.
Moreland is coming off his worst statistical offensive season, hitting an anemic .232/.299/.437 (95 wRC+) in the most plate appearances he’s seen in his major league career (518). He set career-worst benchmarks in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and strikeout rate (22.6%), and it’s becoming harder and harder to pinpoint any one thing he does particularly well on the diamond. He can’t run, he at best plays average defense — at the least prioritized defensive position in the field — and even the fact that he mustered 23 HRs in 2013 was negated by his sub-.300 OBP. He is, in all facets of the game, arguably the most easily-replaceable Ranger this offseason.
Even if you are a Mitch Moreland apologist, it’s difficult to make a logical case for why he should be here next season. If you are of the mind that he would be a valuable bench asset in a platoon role, consider that, in 2013, he batted just .227/.300/.452 (99 wRC+) against right-handed pitching — the guys he’s supposed to have a platoon advantage against — and in his career he’s only been a .258/.325/.463 (106 wRC+) hitter off righties, so it’s not like 2013 was some kind of aberration. The Rangers don’t have a desperate need to carry a 5th outfielder/backup 1B who can’t hit or play defense, or run, for that matter.
So what does it all mean?
Well, with a limited free agent class, the Rangers are faced with only a handful of available avenues to travel through. Of which, I’d consider these 4 to be the most likely, in no particular order:
- Sign Cuban import Jose Abreu;
- Sign free agent Mike Napoli;
- Make a trade for a 1B/DH;
- Move Ian Kinsler to 1B, insert Jurickson Profar to play 2B;
Jose Abreu has become a pretty hot topic, because (a) his destination is completely unknown to this point, (b) no one really has any idea what to expect from him production-wise, and (c) no one knows what he is going to cost.
Mike Napoli seems like more of a long-shot, since the Rangers already showed serious doubt in his hips being able to hold up, along with the idea that another team will likely be willing to commit more years and dollars than the Rangers figure to.
Guessing trades is a fool’s game.
And then there’s option 4 — moving Kinsler to 1st base — which seems like the most realistic of the bunch. The inherent problem with this is that Ian, at age-31, already appears to have arrived at the decline phase of his career, though he did have a marginal bounce-back from his .256/.326/.423 (100 wRC+) 2012 season, hitting .277/.344/.413 (105 wRC+) in 2013. He tied a career-low in stolen bases (15) — tying only his 2010 season where he played in just 103 games — and his defense has been roughly league average according to UZR for the 2nd year in a row.
With that said, there are benefits to moving him there. Notably, the infield defense would drastically improve at 2nd base having Profar instead of Kinsler, and at 1st base with Kinsler instead of Moreland. This would further improve what already figures to be one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball, as well as it just being pretty fucking cool having Kinsler, Profar and Elvis Andrus all in the same infield.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, it would be cost-effective business. Jon Daniels could avoid shelling out unnecessary resources to pick up a 1st baseman, or two bats to platoon there. It keeps the roster flexible.
I realize there is fear of taking Mitch Moreland’s bat out of the lineup, if for nothing else that he can still pop a home run here and there. But to that, I say: What good are home runs when a player can’t get on base?
Should the Rangers shift Kinsler to 1st, it doesn’t mean they will end their pursuit of acquiring an impact bat, or two. Those will come. Whether it’s Nelson Cruz or Brian McCann, or McCann and an outfielder, or a couple guys who aren’t even on the radar yet; they will come.
In the meantime we’re just gonna have to sit back and wait.