Moreland staving off threats to first-base gig

Moreland staving off threats to first-base gig

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Spring Training statistics can easily deceive. That said, four of the Rangers' hottest hitters to this point in camp can all play first base at the Major League level.

Going into Monday's game against the Dodgers, Mitch Moreland, Michael Young, Mike Napoli and Chris Davis were hitting a combined .375 (42-for-112) with six home runs and 26 RBIs. Add 14 doubles and Young's two triples and the four have a combined .549 slugging percentage.

This has been the most productive position in camp, but Moreland is staving off all threats to his job. Most of the intrigue at the position centers on what will happen with Davis, and club officials acknowledge other teams are asking about him. As far as the Rangers are concerned, Moreland has a tight grip on the starting job.

"Moreland has got to lose it," manager Ron Washington said Monday morning. "He came in here and we relaxed him, let him know that it's his job and that it's his to lose."

Moreland is not losing it. He is securing it. Moreland, who didn't start on Monday against the Dodgers, is hitting .375 (12-for-32) with five doubles, two home runs, seven RBIs and a .719 slugging percentage. He is also without an error at a position he is still learning after splitting time between first base and the outfield in the Minor Leagues.

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"He is doing well and improving defensively," Washington said. "Offensively, he is what he is. He's going to grind out at-bats and if they throw it in the wrong spot, he's going to hit it a long ways."

He'll have platoon assistance from Young and Napoli. Both are right-handed hitters. Washington said Moreland will start against some left-handers, but not all of them.

Davis will not make the Opening Day roster as currently configured. The Rangers will likely have to decide if they must trade him or stash him at Triple-A Round Rock as depth.

A trade is a possibility.

"We have been asked about him," general manager Jon Daniels said. "Obviously there is no clean fit as we sit in Spring Training, but we all know things can change. We have to be prepared for anything. We've got time to see how things play out."

If the Rangers decide to trade Davis, they have no glaring need they are trying to fill on the Opening Day roster. The only exception would be if they decide to move Neftali Feliz or Alexi Ogando to the rotation.

If that were the case, the Rangers could be in the market for a reliever for the back end of the bullpen. Otherwise they would just try to make the best deal they can to address some of the depth issues they have in camp.

"We still have a few weeks left," Daniels said. "The way he has played has opened some eyes. It reminds you why you don't give up on guys who have that kind of talent."

Davis has been the Rangers' Opening Day first baseman the past two years but lost the job both times because of his offensive struggles. This spring he has been playing mostly third base while Adrian Beltre has been sidelined with a strained right calf muscle and showed he can handle the position.

"He has played great at third base," Washington said. "He has been outstanding."

At the plate, Davis went into Monday's game against the Dodgers hitting .387 (12-for-31) with two home runs and eight RBIs in 11 games. His .742 slugging percentage was eighth best in the Cactus League.

Davis said he is not losing sleep over what will happen to him at the end of Spring Training.

"I took some NyQuil last night and slept pretty good," Davis said. "No, I don't worry about it. This has been one of the most relaxing Spring Trainings for me. I haven't had anything to worry about except what I need to do to get ready for the season. I'm not worrying about where I'm going to be or where I'm going to start the season. It's about enjoying the game and letting my ability take over."

Davis would play a prominent role on the Rangers if they were able to trade Young. That isn't going to happen. Young, who clashed with the club over his move to designated hitter and how it was handled, requested a trade at the end of January.

But the Rangers weren't able to accommodate him before Spring Training began and trade discussions with other teams have been reduced to a trickle at this point. The three years and $48 million left on Young's contract remains a significant obstacle, and the club has no active discussions going with on with other teams.

Unless something totally unexpected surfaces, all signs point to Young being the designated hitter for the Rangers on Opening Day. But just to add some final intrigue to the situation, the Red Sox may go with left-hander Jon Lester as their Opening Day pitcher.

Lester, a 19-game winner, held left-handers to a .220 average last season. Right-handers only hit .216 off him, so he was tough on everybody.

But Napoli is 3-for-6 off him, while Young is 9-for-23 with a home run. Young's .391 career average against Lester is the second highest by any opponent with at least 25 plate appearances against him.

So the irony is Moreland could be the Rangers' everyday first baseman but not an Opening Day starter if Lester is on the mound.

"Each day will depend on who is pitching and what I feel is the best lineup out there," Washington said. "Sometimes you make plans and things don't work out the way you expected. I'm not going to hold myself to anything except putting the best lineup out there."

Right now, though, on most days, Washington believes that includes Moreland at first.

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.