ARLINGTON -- Mitch Moreland was the Rangers' starting first baseman on Saturday afternoon. He got the day off on Sunday but is expected to be back at his position on Tuesday. All indications are Moreland will also be at first base for the Rangers on Opening Day next season. He remains the Rangers' once and future first baseman, even though ill-founded speculation suggests the club might try to do better -- much better -- this winter. Baseball's upcoming offseason is almost certainly going to be dominated by the fate of free-agent first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Speculation is already rampant that the Rangers will figure prominently in that high-priced market. Club officials are adamant in private that is not going to happen and the team is not expecting to get involved in the bidding for either player.
Tampering rules prevent the Rangers from publicly commenting on potential free agents until the process begins. They prefer anyway to focus on the up-for-grabs American League West race. Despite the dubious perception that their new ownership has the financial means to spend at will, Moreland still has the Rangers' confidence at first base -- even though his first full season has not been a complete success. "He's had some times where he has shown what he is capable of, and he has worked hard on defense," general manager Jon Daniels said. "He has definitely improved there. He hasn't had as consistent of at-bats as he's capable of, but he's a young player, and that will improve over time. He's aware of it." Moreland is still the starting first baseman on a first-place team. He is hitting .266 with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs in 127 games and 444 at-bats. He has a .327 on-base percentage and a .426 slugging percentage. "He has been in and out," manager Ron Washington said. "When Mitch concentrates on hitting line drives, he does better. When he tries to lift the ball, that's when he breaks down. He has to make adjustments. He has held his own. We all know he can do better, but he has held his own." Every team in baseball would like either Pujols or Fielder in their lineup -- at the right price. Fielder, 27, has been the driving force behind the Brewers' pursuit of the National League Central title, and Pujols, 31, has established himself as one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of the game. The Rangers, like any team, could be tempted. However, they have other issues, and club sources say starting pitching is still No. 1 on their list, particularly while C.J. Wilson remains unsigned. Their financial situation has improved dramatically over the past two years, but unlikely to the point where they can enter the stratosphere of the East Coast financial powerhouses. The intense summer heat cost them a chance to hit three million in attendance for the first time in club history. Signing Pujols or Fielder would almost assuredly leave them with five players making well over a combined $70 million in 2012. The others already signed are Michael Young ($16 million), Adrian Beltre ($15 million), Josh Hamilton ($13.75 million) and Ian Kinsler ($7 million). Yorbit Torrealba, Colby Lewis, Koji Uehara and Scott Feldman are also signed for next season and add another combined $17 million to the payroll. Trying to add front-line pitching to that could put the Rangers on the financial brink of what they could spend without allowing for other players, including their growing arbitration class. Right now, the Rangers have a budget-blasting 11 players who are eligible for arbitration: Mike Napoli, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, Mike Adams, David Murphy, Darren O'Day, Mark Lowe, Matt Harrison, Eric Hurley, Esteban German and Andres Blanco. The Rangers are also leery of the kind of long-term deals that Pujols and Fielder could potentially command. They walked away from a seventh year for pitcher Cliff Lee when agreeing to it probably would have brought him back to Arlington. All of this casts a long and dark shadow on any possibility of the Rangers getting involved in a big-time free-agent first baseman, and shows why Moreland remains a prominent part of the club's immediate future. Moreland professes ignorance over the situation. His television at home is usually tuned to the Outdoors Channel and not to speculative cable sports channels. When Moreland is at the ballpark, he has enough to think about being the Rangers' first baseman. "I'm just trying to not to press too much," Moreland said. "Just get a good feeling and grind out my at-bats." He is pressing at the plate. That's the widely-held theory among the Rangers as to why Moreland hasn't had the breakout year that everybody anticipated after he played so well down the stretch last year, especially in the postseason. "I know," Moreland admitted. "I know what I can do. It gets frustrating. You work and you don't get results. This is a results-oriented game, but you can't get caught up in that too much. You do what you can to help the team win." In one regard, he has held up that part of his game. He has nine game-winning RBIs, the second most on the Rangers and tied for ninth most in the AL. He is certainly not viewed nearly in the same light as Chris Davis, who was repeatedly sent to the Minors for lack of production at first base and then traded to the Orioles. The Rangers view Moreland as a productive player on a first-place team. "Yeah, but everybody wants to do better," Moreland said. "If you don't feel that way, something's wrong. So I keep working and doing better every day." Who knows what might change in the weeks and months ahead, but right now, the Rangers expect Moreland to continue that into next season as their first baseman.
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.