"End it." - Ron Washington to Mitch Moreland, just before the start of the bottom of the 11th inning last night
The Rangers have dealt with far more serious recurring holes in their rosters over the last decade than first base (catcher and center field immediately spring to mind), but there's little denying our lack of readiness for the problems that would trail in the wake of the Palmeiro/Teixeira golden era. Since relinquishing their rights to Teixeira in exchange for the privilege of pillaging Atlanta's farm system at the 2007 trade deadline, the Rangers had attempted to find a reliable first base successor out of a hodgepodge of declining veterans (Hank Blalock and Frank Catalanotto), struggling youngsters (Chris Davis, Justin Smoak), and spare parts (Ben Broussard, Chris Shelton, Ryan Garko, etc.), and came away mostly empty-handed in this endeavor, with the few bright spots -- namely, Davis's 2008 run -- later being obscured by a cavalcade of ugly setbacks.
So when Mitch Moreland came along last summer, started hitting, never really stopped hitting, and then came back this season with the first-base gig squared away and not only kept hitting but started hitting even better than before, it all constituted an automatic success in player development ... and if you can believe it, the story only keeps getting better. After limping along to a meager 0-for-4 showing through the first 10½ innings of last night's intrastate affair, Moreland launched the biggest regular-season hit of his life (+.357 WPA) into the upper porch and gave the 30,000-plus on hand good reason to scurry for the exits with just minutes to spare before a strong thunderstorm rocked the Ballpark; hence, the title. Wreckless hyperbole, you say? Look on the bright side -- at least I didn't shoehorn in another hip-hop song reference.
Four months ago, I asked a panel consisting of Jason Parks, Mike Hindman, Jason Cole, and Kevin Goldstein to tell me what Moreland was at the present and what he could end up becoming in the future, and the consensus was more or less centered around the label "league-average first baseman." Given what the Rangers had been forced to deal with at first base in the years prior to Moreland's ascendance, many of us would have been perfectly content with "league-average" for the foreseeable future ... but the other big thing that was hammered home by several of those that I asked was that Moreland would make the absolute most out of his physical gifts, and that the possibility did exist for Moreland to become something greater than the league-average label would suggest.
I certainly don't want to get ahead of myself on this one, but I'm beginning to wonder if pigeonholing Moreland as a league-average player is actually selling him a bit short. Of the 31 players who have (a) amassed at least 400 plate appearances between 2010-11 to date and (b) have played at least 50 percent of their games at first base, Moreland's cumulative 126 wRC+ -- which essentially tells us that he's been 26 percent better than the league-average hitter over that two-year period, taking league/park differentials into account -- is tied for 12th place with Ryan Howard's, and if you figure that he can yet improve his defense at first base by a skosh, it becomes quite a bit easier to envision a player who can be worth 2½-3 wins above replacement on a full-season basis going forward. That's better than league average, and, given his pre-arbitration/indentured slave status, extremely valuable.
All that being said, Moreland isn't without his own set of flaws: despite hitting very well against southpaws throughout his minor league career, he has yet to establish any sort of ability to hit them at the major league level (which could relegate him to a platoon role, given enough struggles), and the seeming fringe-average defense could use some tightening up. Furthermore, if he should fall upon extended hard times, Chris Davis -- now hitting .364/.414/.869 at Triple-A Round Rock -- might yet still be in line to ratchet up the pressure on his counterpart ... but as of this moment, this is Mitch Moreland's world, and we should all feel quite content to be living in it.