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Surprise positional outlook: First base

1/25/2011

We continue our brief look at each position with a swing around the infield. (Note, this has been updated to reflect the Mike Napoli trade on Tuesday).

Today's position: First base

It's certainly rare to see a team advance to the World Series without a solid, power bat putting up major numbers at first base. But the Rangers managed to get there despite only 59 RBIs all season from the first base position, tied for last in the majors (with Baltimore). They had just 16 homers at that corner spot (only four teams had fewer and none of them made the postseason). And the first base position hit .214 during the regular season, which was second-to-last in the majors with only Tampa Bay behind the Rangers in that category.

Ever since Mark Teixeira left in a critical 2007 trade deadline deal that helped springboard the Rangers to their 2010 success (see Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz), the Rangers have been searching for an answer at first base. Last year, the season started with Chris Davis at first base, a young player the Rangers hoped would seize the position. But Davis started the season 9-for-48 (.188) and was sent back to Triple-A before the end of April.

That opened the door for Justin Smoak, the club's first-round pick in the 2008 draft (11th overall). Smoak hit just .187 in May but showed improvement in June with a .266 average and 22 RBIs. It was shortly after that month that Smoak was traded as the headliner in a package to land Cliff Lee from Seattle. So that left the Rangers once again with a hole at first base. They traded for Jorge Cantu near the trade deadline and gave Davis another chance. But by the end of the July, Mitch Moreland, the 17th-round pick in the 2007 draft that some in the organization thought had a better chance of moving up the system as a pitcher (he was 7-3 with a 0.53 ERA in 55 innings his senior year of high school), was called up and given an opportunity.

Moreland took advantage. He made steady improvement on defense and, despite a .235 average in August and September, showed power, an ability to drive in runs and that he could be a patient hitter. He worked counts and drew his fair share of walks when his pitch wasn't there, showing maturity for a young hitter.

Moreland, of course, would showcase all of those things in the postseason. He hit .348 with one memorable World Series homer and seven RBIs. He had a .900 OPS and forced Cantu to the bench in the playoffs during the ALDS as manager Ron Washington went with Moreland in Game 5 of that series and then kept putting his name in the lineup the remainder of the postseason.

"It was definitely big,” said Moreland about his postseason showing. “It set the mood for my offseason. I knew what I needed to do to come back and be ready to go. I went home, took a little bit of a break and got started and tried to get ready, and now I'm counting down the days.”

That brings us to 2011. Some changes with the roster certainly impact the first base position heading into spring training. Michael Young is no longer the starting third baseman, shifting over to DH and a super utility role. That means he's going to grab a first base glove and learn to play the position in spring training so that he can step in there when necessary. The Rangers continue to look at some veteran bench options, but some of those players the club showed interest in (Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez) would have likely decreased Moreland's time. But with three weeks until pitchers and catchers report, Moreland is the starting first baseman.

UPDATE: The Rangers trade for Napoli on Tuesday gives them a right-handed bat off the bench and one that can play first (he started more games at first in 2010 (67) than he did at catcher (59) thanks to the injury to Kendry Morales).

Napoli is a power bat -- he hit 26 homers in 140 games in 2010 -- and posted a team-high batting average against left-handed pitching at .305 last season. That means he can spell Moreland against the tough left-handers and that Young likely won't have to play first base quite as much.

The Rangers organization believes strongly in Moreland to the point where they didn't want to include him in some trade talks this offseason. The question is how he'll respond as the starting first baseman in 2011. Davis had a good half-season as a rookie and appeared poised to be the first baseman of the future and he's still working on his craft. How will Moreland handle it? (My crystal ball says he's going to build off that postseason and be fine. I'm not betting on monster numbers, but overall he'll be a lot more steady and solid than what the Rangers put up as a team at first base last year).

Check out our previous positional outlooks: Catcher.