2015 Preview – First Base

As we draw closer to Spring Training 2015, I will continue my tribute to the late Richard Durrett by previewing each position on the Rangers, just as he did. Every position, the pitching staff, and even the coaching staff will be evaluated and discussed. Click any of the links below to read a preview that has already been published.
If there was any one, singular injury that hurt the Rangers the most in 2014, it was the one suffered by their biggest gamble, their biggest offseason acquisition, Prince Fielder. Following 2013, one of the Rangers’ “800 pound gorillas” was finding a first baseman. No matter how many times they said it, everyone knew that Mitch Moreland couldn’t possibly be the franchise first baseman that they coveted. Mitch had another season where he rode a hot streak for a month that gave everyone hope, but suffered an injury that derailed him, rendering him more frustrating than fearsome. It was the same story Texas fans had seen for the past two years. With a gluttony of middle infielders, it was time to pull the trigger via trade.In a trade that probably caused more controversy than it should have, the Rangers traded one of their cornerstones, second baseman Ian Kinsler, to the Detroit Tigers for the man who could have been perceived as baseball’s next Iron Man, Prince Fielder. At his introductory press conference, Fielder, who had only missed one game in the past five seasons, told everyone that he wasn’t “looking to come in and be Captain Badass.” However, there isn’t a Rangers fan around that won’t tell you that Captain Badass is exactly what they were looking for out of Prince Fielder. What actually happened was something quite different.In 2014: Fielder’s Rangers tenure didn’t start off with a lot of fireworks, something that immediately concerned the fan base. His first homer came 14 games into the season, at a time when he was batting an “Arencibian” .176. His presence as the three-hole hitter was not manifesting itself, but the two mantras surrounding Fielder were, “Give it time,” and, “He can’t possibly hit like this for the rest of the season.” The latter part ended up being true, anyway. Time pressed on, April bled into May and the big story continued to be the pitching staff. Colby Lewis had returned, but Matt Harrison had been shut down for the season and Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross, Jr. weren’t cutting it as starters. Offensively, hope continued to revolve around the (then) hot-hitting Shin-Soo Choo getting on base and the expectation that Fielder would drive people in. It was the middle of May, following three straight multi-hit games, that Prince Fielder went 0-for-3 against Toronto…and was never seen on the field again.

The news had broken that the 30-year-old Fielder had a herniated disk, a problem that had followed him from Detroit, and that he would need neck fusion surgery, ending his season. The very model of consistency and durability was done. Questions popped up surrounding Prince’s health: Why was there no physical? How long had this been affecting him? Is this going to affect him for the rest of the contract? And the more pressing question: What do the Rangers do in the middle of May without their mega-contract first baseman?

The Rangers had the right backup plan with Mitch Moreland. Defensively, at least it would be an upgrade. Mitch, in 2013, had proven himself to be an asset at the cold corner, having leaned out physically and made adjustments to increase his agility. That part carried over. Offensively, Mitch had been doing alright as DH, but once he transitioned to the full-time first baseman, he had 13 hits over 19 games in 85 at-bats – roughly a worse-than-Prince-at-the-time .153 average. Then, Mitch hurt his ankle, needed surgery and never returned. Two first basemen down, nine to go.

Who were those 9? In no particular order (except that this is the order they’re listed in on Baseball Reference) – Brad Snyder, Carlos Pena, Adam Rosales, Mike Carp, Donnie Murphy, Chris Gimenez, J.P. Arencibia, Ryan Rua, and Jim Adduci. Who of this group was the most effective for the rest of the year? Adam Rosales, who actually became the regular, full-time, everyday first baseman for the Rangers right after September started and had been voted Texas’ Player of the Month for August. If that doesn’t tell you how the Rangers’ season went…well, don’t worry, because there are actually other places you can look.

In 2015: Prince Fielder is coming back to the Rangers. Reportedly at 100%, all of the hype, expectation and visions of demolished All-You-Can-Eat seats have returned. The ZiPS projection has Captain Badassputting up a slash line of .262/.360/.437 with 21 homers and 72 RBI. Are the Rangers going to need more than that from their third spot hitter? I would say, yes. If Adrian Beltre’s perceived protection is going to have any worth, it must be dangerous to pitch to Prince. Is it realistic to expect more? Probably not. At this point, I’ll take the projections put forward by Dan Szymborski in the hopes that Prince will exceed them and make us all happy for the trade. Prince is primed to be a “Comeback Player of the Year” and if he ends up claiming that award, it should go a long way towards bringing the Rangers back from the AL West basement.

Behind him, Mitch Moreland still lurks. After settling with Mitch for an arbitration salary of $2.95 million, one must think this is the last hurrah for the Mississippi native. Moreland has seen his role with the Rangers diminish over the last few years, from full-time first baseman to full-time DH/part-time first baseman, and now, with the signing of players like Kyle Blanks and Ryan Ludwick, possibly just a part-time DH who fills in at first on Fielder’s off days. Moreland will see his time in the field increase, as it is simply unrealistic to expect Fielder to play all 162 games one season removed from neck surgery. He’s going to have to redefine the phrase “making the most out of your opportunities” if he expects to stay on the team after this year. Yes, my projection is that if Mitch does nothing to separate himself from the pack this year, the Rangers won’t tender him a contract next winter.

But let’s not focus on the doom and gloom. The expectation is that both players end up better than they finished in 2014. That, by itself, would make the club infinitely more fun to watch through the season.

Hot Stove: You better hope that the Rangers are done making off-season acquisitions for a backup first baseman. Any further moves would mean that something has gone wrong with Prince and Mitch.

What are your expectations for Prince Fielder going into 2015? How many games do you think he’ll end up playing? Is Mitch Moreland still a valuable player on this team? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter. Next week, we move to the right and explore the spot that was vacated in the trade for Prince Fielder – second base.

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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