Moreland happy to earn his stripes at first

Moreland happy to earn his stripes at first

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers had a light bus for the short trip down Bell Road to Peoria on Tuesday.

Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Michael Young all stayed back in Surprise. So did three-fourths of the Rangers' starting infield: Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler. Mitch Moreland, however, was on the bus and played first base against the Mariners.

"I like it," Moreland said. "The more games I can get in, the better."

This may just mean that somebody has to go to Peoria. Major League rules require four regulars be in the lineup for all Spring Training games, so the Rangers were represented by Moreland, Julio Borbon, David Murphy and Yorvit Torrealba.

This may also mean that Moreland is not yet in the same category as his All-Star teammates. They have secure jobs. But Moreland?

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"I don't know what the thought process is," Moreland said. "I know I've got to get some work in, and play my game."

He does know one thing. He does have to earn his job at first base. He is the Rangers' starting first baseman, and it would be a major surprise if somebody took it away here in camp. But Moreland knows he can't be assured of a job like those who spent Tuesday in Surprise.

"Definitely," Moreland said. "There will never be a day in my career where I feel I don't have to earn my job. Whether it is here or whatever team I play for, I have to be ready to play my game. I don't want anything being given to me."

Here is one reason why Moreland can't get comfortable: Rangers first basemen seem to have a short shelf life lately. During a 20-year run from Pete O'Brien to Rafael Palmeiro/Will Clark to Mark Teixeira it was the most stable position on the team.

No more. Since the start of 2007, the Rangers have had no less than 18 different players start at least one game at first base. Only the Mariners, with 20 different starting first basemen, had more among American League teams over the past four years. The Tigers and the Twins have used just eight.

Most notable on the Rangers' list is Teixeira, who started the revolving door when he went on the disabled list in 2007, and then was traded to the Braves. Behind him have come Hank Blalock and Chris Davis. There was also Ben Broussard and Ryan Garko, Frank Catalanotto and Brad Wilkerson, Justin Smoak and Jason Botts, Chris Shelton and Jorge Cantu. Joaquin Arias started five games there, Max Ramirez three and Matt Kata one.

Regardless of who has been there, it hasn't been a particularly productive group. Over the past four years, Rangers first basemen rank seventh in home runs, 10th in RBIs, 11th in slugging percentage and dead last in on-base percentage among American League teams. In on-base plus slugging, they are 13th.

"You definitely have to have offense there," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "It doesn't have to be tremendous offense, but it has to be some."

Their first basemen also ranked 13th by striking out once every 4.10 plate appearances. There have been 74 American League players who have played at least 20 games at first base over the past four years. Seven of the 25 who have the highest plate appearance/strikeout ratio in that group were Rangers first basemen -- including the top three: Davis, Shelton and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

The Rangers aren't expecting Albert Pujols, but they would like their first basemen to at least "grind out" at-bats. That's what Moreland did after being called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City on July 29.

"He just gave us real consistent, high-quality at-bats," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "Nationally, he came in under the radar -- but internally, our guys viewed him as one of the best workers and makeups. He came up and did just that. He produced in big spots."

Moreland played in 47 games for the Rangers, and hit .255 with a .364 on-base percentage and a .469 slugging percentage. He had 20 runs scored, nine home runs and 25 RBIs. He struck out 36 times, but walked 25. Do that over 162 games, and it comes out to 69 runs scored, 31 home runs, 86 RBI, 101 walks and 146 strikeouts. The Rangers will take the strikeouts, if they can get the rest.

Moreland really stood out in the playoffs, hitting .348 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. In 15 games, he was 16-for-46 with five runs scored, four doubles, seven RBI, and his three-run home run in Game 3 of the World Series.

"Postseason definitely gave me some confidence, and paved my way for what I needed to do in the offseason," Moreland said. "It gave me a plan on how to approach things. I had my struggles, and I had times where I did well. I know what I don't need to do.

"I don't need for the game to speed me up. Play the game at my own pace. That's what I'm doing defensively. Slow it down, and stay under control. Offensively, I need to simplify everything and stay short and quick to the [pitch]. Both of those things will result in me being comfortable, and comfortable means success."

The Rangers expect him to have success, which is why he is No. 1 on the first-base depth chart. There are still plenty of others on that chart. Young is working out at first. Mike Napoli was the Angels' first baseman for the final four months of last season. Davis, who was the Opening Day first baseman the past two years, is in camp and looking good.

"This what we do," Moreland said. "It's the nature of the game. I'm here to help wherever I can -- whether it's first base or the outfield. Right now, the first-base glove is being used more than the others."

So Tuesday was a good day for Moreland to be on the bus, rather than hanging back with the All-Stars.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.