By Stephen Hawkins/The Associated Press
SURPRISE, Ariz. — As a rookie, Mitch Moreland was the Texas Rangers’ best hitter in their first World Series.
In the two seasons since then, he has dealt with injuries and split time at first base. But with Michael Young and Mike Napoli no longer in Texas, manager Ron Washington wants Moreland (Amory, Mississippi State) to have some fun.
“He’s my first baseman,” Washington said. “I just want him to relax and prepare like that.”
Moreland has started more than half of the Rangers’ games at first base the past two years, even with veterans Young and Napoli getting their turns. But Moreland was hampered by a wrist injury the second half of 2011 that required surgery, then missed a month last season because of a strained left calf.
“It’s been a ride for me, for sure,” Moreland said. “I’ve got a lot of experience so far, really early in my career. … I feel like all that can do is help me.”
This spring, Moreland arrived at camp more than 15 pounds lighter, in the low 230s. The left-hander’s offseason workouts included batting practice against a lefty pitcher three times a week — he has hit .232 in 177 career at-bats against lefties in the regular season games.
Moreland is the only true first baseman on the Rangers roster.
“It definitely helps, being able to walk in and see your name on that board and know that you’re going to be in there every day,” he said. “It just gives you that little kind of boost of confidence where you know that they’re counting on you every day.”
Young, who had been the longest-tenured Rangers player, was traded to Philadelphia in December. Napoli signed a free-agent deal with Boston after being primarily a catcher but also playing some first base in Texas the past two years.
Their absence isn’t adding any extra pressure on Moreland.
“Actually, I feel like kind of, there’s weight lifted off more than say a weight being put on,” Moreland said. “In the past, I put a little pressure on myself trying to go up there and make something happen every at-bat, where now I know I’m just going to go out and play, and that’s the way I’ve approached it.”
Moreland hit .275 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in 114 games last season. He is a .264 hitter in 295 career games.
Washington said he had a conversation earlier this week with the 27-year-old Moreland, telling him to have some fun, enjoy himself and not take everything so serious.
“He doesn’t have to live up to any other person’s standards. He’s just got to live up to Mitch Moreland’s standards, and if he lives up to Moreland standards, he impresses everybody,” Washington said. “I’m just trying to get him to show another side of his personality where he can relax and laugh and smile and have fun, it’s a game. It’s a tough game, but it’s a game. … We know what’s inside of him.”
The manager said it’s clear that Moreland wants to succeed, pointing to the lost weight that will help his agility and working on his own with a left-handed pitcher.
Moreland homered against left-hander Jonathan Sanchez in Game 3 of the 2010 World Series at Rangers Ballpark. That made him the first left-handed hitter in major league history to hit a homer in the World Series off a lefty after never homering off one before in a regular-season or postseason game.
Moreland hit .462 in that series (6 for 13) against San Francisco, and was the only Texas player with a hit in all five games.
Earlier that season, Moreland was an everyday outfielder at Triple-A Oklahoma City. He started playing first base again when Justin Smoak, another of the Rangers’ top prospects, got sent to Seattle in the deal for Cliff Lee. Three weeks later, Moreland was playing first base in the majors.
At the non-waiver trade deadline a year later, in July 2011, the Rangers traded Chris Davis, another young first baseman with major league experience, to Baltimore.
“He’s got a great air about him, a confidence,” general manager Jon Daniels said of Moreland. “It’s easy to that he was a guy who was behind two more heralded guys in Smoak and Davis, and he beat them out for the job. If not for that wrist injury, he may be in a different spot right now. That definitely set him back. He’s got the opportunity ahead of him to bounce back from it.”