2016 Position Preview – First Base

MitchStaysThroughTheBall

The countdown to Spring Training rolls on, as we take a look at “the other” Hot Corner – First Base. It’s been said (by someone…somewhere…) that if someone can’t field, hide ’em at First Base. Maybe more accurately, it’s been said that anyone can play First. However, as Ron Washington told Scott Hatteberg, “It’s incredibly hard.” Someone on the Rangers found that out and then decided that he’d move to make the team better.

  • Week 1: The Rotation; Catcher
  • Week 2: First Base; Second Base
  • Week 3: Third Base, Shortstop
  • Week 4: Left Field, Center Field
  • Week 5: Right Field, The Bench
  • Week 6: The Bullpen, The Coaching Staff

In 2015: Actually, let’s back that up just a little further. Prior to 2014, Texas had picked up baseball’s new “Ironman” Prince Fielder from the Tigers in exchange for Ian Kinsler. In that deal, Texas was getting a more consistent and reliable left-handed power hitter who had missed just one game in five years with Milwaukee and Detroit. Naturally, everything that could go wrong in 2014 went wrong and Fielder’s season ended after just 42 games and neck surgery.

In 2015, Fielder reported to camp completely healthy and ready to rumble. It turns out his bat was ready, but the glove…well, Fielder wasn’t ever going to be a Gold Glove First Baseman, but between his already sub-average defense and recuperating from neck surgery, it was fairly clear that something else would need to happen at the position. Fielder was/is a $24 million man. There was no way the Rangers were going to have a $24 million Designated Hitter, were they?

When said $24 million man, who has taken pride in being able to play the field and hit the ball every single day of the season, openly says that the team is better with another man playing his position and that he was willing to ride the pine for all but four plate appearances or so, that’s a catalyst. Fielder and longtime first baseman, Mitch Moreland, who incidentally happened to be a MUCH better defender, switched positions. There were lots of questions that came with the move: Would Prince Fielder be able to continue his torrid hitting without the rhythm of taking the field? Could Mitch Moreland stay healthy and finally fulfill his potential? Could bringing back Mike Napoli to spell both when they needed rest down the stretch work? The answer to all was yes.

Moreland went on his usual first half DL stint, but when he returned, it was with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove. Over 132 games, Moreland amassed career-highs in hits (131), doubles (27), home runs (tied with 23), and RBI (85). His slash line of .278/.330/.482 was also a career best. He also put up a .996 Fielding Percentage at First, tying a career best.

Fielder raked, too. In 158 games, the big guy collected 187 hits (a career high), 23 homers, 98 RBI, and an absurd 88 strikeouts to 64 walks. He finished with a slash line of .305/.378/.463. Was this the guy that the Rangers picked up from Detroit? Not entirely, but considering that he had returned from neck surgery that kept him out of the game for ten months, that certainly was impressive. It was so impressive, Fielder won the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Both players faulted in the American League Division Series against Toronto, but the signs of progress from both Moreland and Fielder were more than encouraging.

In 2016: Despite the team’s best efforts to try and inject a right-handed bat into the lineup and at First Base in the person of Mike Napoli, a reasonable trade to move Mitch Moreland in his last year of arbitration before free agency could not be found. We’ll talk about the trade possibilities for Moreland later, but the whole idea is that Moreland and Fielder will still be in the same lineup for 2016 (as of right now). Moreland will be back at first base and Fielder will stay at DH, with the possibility of Fielder manning the field in inter-league games.

Fielder and Moreland will be coming off of full, healthy off-seasons. With Moreland entering a contract year, all eyes, not just in Texas, but around all of baseball, will be on him – he would enter next year’s off-season as potentially one of the top free agent position players on the open market. Fielder’s production in his first completely healthy season will be closely scrutinized as he takes another $24 million chunk out of Texas’ payroll.

Speaking of money, Moreland is eligible for arbitration for the last time. He earned $2.95 million last year. Go back up and look at how he ended 2015. Not that I think Moreland will set a record in salary jump from one year to the next in arbitration (he’d have to jump about $13 million), but given his performance, expect the 30-year old first baseman to ask for a significant increase. I don’t believe that the Rangers will finally go to an arbitration hearing, but Moreland could earn between $6-8 million next year.

From the Hot Stove: As it seems like it has been for the last several years, Moreland’s name was again brought up in trade discussions. This season, however, with the potential of re-signing Mike Napoli, talks progressed further than ever before. Jon Daniels’ team engaged in discussions with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who could have used a presence like Moreland in their lineup, to acquire at least one Major League ready arm to bolster the Rangers’ rotation. One name that was looked at was right-hander Charlie Morton. Whether Pirates GM Neal Huntington didn’t want to give up Morton or JD wanted more than Morton for Moreland, the deal ended up falling through. The Rangers never got to re-sign Napoli, and the Pirates, instead, went and signed career catcher John Jaso (remember, first base is very hard, Hatteberg) to play first base.

As for depth at first base, Texas did sign outfielder Justin Ruggiano to be the fourth outfielder, but the team will also try him out as a possibility to back-up Moreland defensively at first base. Again, first base is very hard. Ruggiano has not played a Major League inning at first base. There are still options on the Free Agent market that could fill the need for a defense-first, backup first baseman, but the likes of Steve PearceJeff BakerChris Johnson and others will have to be willing to take Minor League deals to end up on the Rangers squad. That being said, it’s far more likely that the team looks internally to fill the need.

The “Richard Durrett” Three Questions at this position:

  1. Should the Rangers have traded Mitch Moreland and re-signed Napoli? What would have merited an ‘acceptable’ return?
  2. Can Moreland and Prince Fielder improve upon, or at least replicate, the years that they had in 2015?
  3. Is there a current Free Agent that you can (logically) see the Rangers signing that you’d want to back up Moreland in the field? Who is it? Chris Davis does not qualify as a logical answer.

We’ll be back in a couple of days with the preview for 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

2 comments

  • Congrats on the new kid Matt!

    1. I was hoping for a Moreland trade/Napoli signing combo, but you can’t give away Moreland without a proper return. Takes two to tango. Annoying that Napoli couldn’t be kept though – he belongs in Texas.

    2. If they replicate their production I’d be more than happy. In a perfect world maybe Fielder recovers a little more of his lost power – or just keeps getting better with his all fields approach.

    3. No one really, unless they come on at a minor league contract to compete.

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