2/23/2013 5:00 P.M. ET
Healthy Moreland looks to return to form
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Adrian Beltre played shortstop during batting practice on Saturday morning, most likely to show Elvis Andrus how to really play the position.
Beltre stood there waiting for a ground ball, but Mitch Moreland instead swung at a pitch from manager Ron Washington and hit a line drive into left field.
"Mitch, hit me grounders, not line drives!" Beltre yelled. "Grounders!"
Moreland did just that. He hit a one-hop rocket that bounced off Beltre's glove and also ended up in left field. He hit the next pitch equally hard back up the middle, a one-hop shot off the protective screen in front of Washington.
The manager didn't mind. He kept throwing batting practice and soaking in everything Moreland was doing. What the Rangers' left-handed first baseman was doing most was scattering line drives and hard grounders all over the ballpark, driving the ball deep into the gap in right-center and to left field equally as well. Only occasionally did he get under one enough to pull it deep beyond the fence in right field and into the eager souvenir seekers lined up on Greenway Ave.
The manager didn't want to see the ball land in Greenway. He wanted more line drives over his shortstop's head, one-hoppers off his glove and hard grounders up the middle.
"That's what he was doing when he first came up," Washington said after the session, thinking back to the summer of 2010 when Moreland was first promoted from Triple-A. "Line drives the other way, skimming grounders hard off the infield dirt ... smacking the ball back up the middle. Moving the ball all over the place, it didn't matter if the pitcher was left or right."
That's what the Rangers want to see from Moreland and he agreed with that assessment.
"I feel like I'm more effective when I spread the ball around the field," Moreland said. "It's a big part of my game, and it would be nice to do it more down here."
He can do it because his right wrist is strong again. Moreland played with a progressively sore right wrist in the second half of the 2011 season and the problem became so serious that the Rangers called the Cardinals to see if Lance Berkman was available via trade.
He was not. Moreland got through the season, but his production fell off. He hit .272 with a .449 slugging percentage before the All-Star break and .241 with a .367 slugging percentage afterward. He underwent surgery after the season.
"It's tough to swing without your hands, but that's over with," Moreland said.
It should have been over last year, but Washington said Moreland's swing became long and he became more of a pull hitter. The theory was the wrist problems kept Moreland from doing what he does best: trust his ability, wait on pitches and use all fields with a short, quick swing.
"He had some injuries that caused him to adjust his swing, and he couldn't get back," Washington said. "This spring, I see him using all fields and hitting line drives."
Pulling the ball works for left-handed hitters at the Ballpark in Arlington. Moreland hit .318 with a .553 slugging percentage at home last season. But he hit just .229 with a .376 slugging percentage on the road.
"I didn't know there was a difference," Moreland said. "It's not something I think about. I'm just trying to beat the guy on the mound."
Moreland also missed 31 games from June 20 to July 29 with a pulled left hamstring. It was part of a rough season for Rangers first basemen in general. Rangers first basemen hit 20 home runs last season, tied for the second fewest in the American League. Their 70 RBIs were the third fewest and the .414 slugging percentage was the fifth lowest. It was not a one-year aberration.
In a four-year period from 2004-07, with Mark Teixeira primarily playing the position, Rangers first basemen ranked second in the American League with 138 home runs and first with 465 RBIs. They were also second with a .511 slugging percentage and an .869 OPS.
In the five years since then, Rangers first basemen have hit 108 home runs, third fewest in the league and driven in 371 runs, the second fewest. Their .407 slugging percentage is the third lowest and their .714 OPS is tied for the lowest. The Rangers are the only AL team whose first basemen haven't hit at least 27 home runs or driven in at least 88 runs in one season over the past five years.
"I don't want my first basemen thinking about 25-30 home runs or driving in 100 RBI," Washington said. "That's not what Mitch should be thinking about. I need him grinding out at-bats, working the pitcher, getting as many RBI as he can and hitting the ball around the field and playing defense."
First base has been a trouble spot for the Rangers but they still believe Moreland is the answer. That's why they resisted the idea of moving Kinsler to first so they could insert Jurickson Profar into the lineup. He could face left-handers as well as right-handers. The Rangers want to see what he can do for a full season without any health issue.
"I'd like to know, too," Moreland said. "That's the goal. I know the very traditional view of first base is it's more of a power guy, an RBI guy. But you can't look at that as a player. You've got to be yourself, what you're good at and stick to your game. I can't get caught up in brands. I go up there, grind out at-bats and barrel up the ball. That's what I do as a hitter."
That's what he did Saturday morning. Adrian Beltre didn't get much action at shortstop when Moreland was at the plate.
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.