Moreland had finally blossomed into being a consistent hitter when the Rangers
needed him most. (AP)
Since late April, Mitch Moreland has wielded one of the game's most potent bats, helping the Rangers secure their spot atop the AL West by picking up the slack for the injured Ian Kinsler and the departed Josh Hamilton. The Rangers will have to carry on without Moreland for the foreseeable future, however, as he could miss the next month due to a right hamstring strain that sent him to the disabled list on Thursday.
In previous years, Moreland's absence might have been greeted with a shrug, as he's been a secondary producer in a potent offense. From 2010 through 2012, he hit a combined .264/.328/.441, numbers that didn't amount to much given Texas' hitter-friendly ballpark; his .267 True Average — an expression of his runs produced per out on a batting average scale, after adjusting for park and league scoring rates — was about 10 points below that of the average first baseman. Manager Ron Washington rightly shielded the lefty-swinging Moreland from lefthanded pitching, against which he hit a meager .232/.294/.328 in 196 plate appearances. When he missed nearly six weeks last summer due to a left hamstring strain, the Rangers went 17-15 with Michael Young filling in against righties, dropping only 1 1/2 games in the standings.
This year, it's been a different story. The now-27-year-old Moreland is hitting .288/.338/.561 with 12 homers overall, with the team's top True Average (.309) and slugging percentage and its second-highest home run total (tied with Adrian Beltre). He got off to a wretched start, hitting just .157/.228/.294 through the team's first 17 games, but since then — selective endpoint alert! — he has hit a sizzling .333/.377/.653 with 10 homers in 159 PA. Among AL hitters, only Miguel Cabrera (.375/.460/.731) and Chris Davis (.347/.422/.700) have higher slugging percentages or OPS in that span, which began on the day the Rangers seized first place in the AL West. In fact, it was Moreland's two-run fourth-inning homer off the Mariners' Aaron Harang that provided the go-ahead runs in the April 21 victory that carried Texas into first, where it has remained since. Here's the MLB.com video of that shot off Harang, which at 438 feet stands as the longest of Moreland's season:
Moreland has played in every game this year, starting all but four of them at first base, and he's rewarded Washington's faith by hitting a passable .278/.321/.458 in 78 PA against lefties. Of course, his production against righties has taken a big jump as well, mainly in the power department: from .271/.335/.468 in 2010-2012 to .294/.348/.619 with 11 homers in 138 PA this year. Alas, he left Wednesday night's game at Fenway Park with tightness in his hamstring, and after he returned to Texas, an MRI revealed a strain.
The Rangers have several options to replace him at first base. Twenty-five-year-old lefty Chris McGuiness was recalled from Triple-A Round Rock, where he was hitting .275/.382/.477. A 2009 13th round draft pick by the Red Sox, he was acquired by the Rangers at the July 31, 2010 trading deadline via a deal that sent Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Boston, and after being selected by the Indians in last December's Rule 5 draft, was returned in mid-March without a scratch. Washington may choose to pair him in a platoon with utilityman Jeff Baker, a lefty-masher who has hit a searing .339/.414/.677 with six homers in 70 plate appearances off the bench this year. Other options include using DH Lance Berkman at first, a risky move given the 37-year-old's penchant for injury, or calling up Mike Olt, a 24-year-old third baseman who can play first. Olt recently missed more than a month due to blurred vision, however, and is hitting just .175/.267/.300 in 90 PA at Round Rock. He's 8-for-20 with four extra-base hits in five games (three at Double-A Frisco, two at Round Rock) since returning, though, so if he can maintain similarly productive hitting he could find his way to Arlington.
The Rangers are a league-best 36-22 and sit atop their division by 1 1/2 games, but their offense isn't the juggernaut it once was; their 4.64 runs per game ranks seventh in the league, down from an AL-leading 4.99 runs per game last year. They're showing a bit of wear, however. In addition to Moreland's absence, Beltre (.304/.347/.531) recently missed two games with a hamstring problem. Kinsler (.302/.369/.500), out since May 17 due to what was initially diagnosed as an intercostal strain, has since been diagnosed with a stress reaction in his ribs, which could push his availability back to mid-June or later; at least Jurickson Profar (.295/.333/.455) has filled in reasonably well so far. Nelson Cruz (.269/.326/.514), the lineup's other current top producer, is healthy, though as one of the players linked to the Biogenesis case, he's got a major distraction hanging over his head.
All of which means that the Rangers will cross their fingers and hope Moreland returns quickly and holds onto the gains that have made him not just an everyday player, but a key one on a contender.