Coming into the 2017 season, nobody expected Mitch Moreland to be Boston’s biggest offensive threat.
This is as much a curse with faint praise as it is anything else; Moreland was hitting an entirely respectable .280/.373/.480 (.853 OPS, 122 OPS+) going into Sunday’s games. Extended over an entire season, that would make this the best season of his career by a fair margin; he’s already at 1.5 WAR for 2017, with his previous single-season high in that category being a lofty 2.2 in 2015.
The biggest change to his game since his time with the Texas Rangers is that he’s walking a lot more now; his 31 walks so far are approaching his personal best of 45 in 2013, done over 518 PA as opposed to the 260 he has going into Sunday’s action. It’s difficult to say whether the main reason is playing in Fenway as a home park or just some good luck with the pitchers he’s been matched against. But an OBP spike over ~200 PAs at age 31 from a dude with seven pro seasons and a career .321 OBP generally isn’t a sign that a guy’s unlocked a higher level of discipline.
And that’s fine, because Moreland isn’t in Boston to carry the Red Sox to victory. He was brought in on a one year, $5.5 million deal for a very specific purpose: give the Sox a cheap but proven part-time option to play first base. In particular, one that could handle the defensive aspects of the position without question, just in case the Hanley Ramirez-to-first experiment didn’t work out too well. It hasn’t.
Ramirez’s offense has regressed back to his 2015 with the club, except with a bit more on-base percentage, while his adventures in the field have been … let’s just say that he’s been worth half a loss defensively this year despite having only played 12 innings at first base.
It’s possible at this point that this is who Ramirez will be for the rest of his career — a mediocre-to-bad designated hitter, one of those Hall-of-Nearly-Great players that couldn’t sustain production after he turned 30. If that’s the case, the Red Sox need to find solutions at first sooner rather than later. But none of that is Moreland’s problem; he’s already gone above and beyond what’s been required of him so far this season.
The question then becomes whether to pursue a first baseman or designated hitter at the trade deadline. There’s no doubt that the Red Sox need all the help on offense that they can get. And to be quite honest, the most attractive option for the Sox from a pure hitting perspective — Oakland first baseman/DH Yonder Alonso — has very little business playing the field, either, especially with Moreland on the roster.
The problem with dealing for Alonzo, of course, is one both of priorities and opportunity cost. The Red Sox need a first baseman/DH and a third baseman fairly badly, but they also owe a whole lot of money to two guys — Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, respectively — who were supposed to fulfill those roles. There’s just not enough room on the roster at once for all of, say, Alonso, Yangervis Solarte from the San Diego Padres or Todd Frazier from the Chicago White Sox, Moreland, Ramirez, and Sandoval. At least one has to go.
We’re at the point where, pressed with this problem, the choice is clear: the Sandoval deal has not worked out and will not work out, and it’s time to designate him for assignment. That $18 million a year he’s earning isn’t actually any better spent by running him out there and actively hurting the team in the lineup and in the field every day. It’s unfortunate for the Red Sox that they’re going to have to write off another significant portion of the budget just as they were getting out from under the Allen Craig debacle, but that’s just the way it goes.
As for Moreland, though, he’s in the best place in the world; expanded playing time and good feelings from fans on a team that’s got a legitimate shot at winning the World Series this year. Plus, there’s a decent chance he can pick up a multi-year deal of some kind elsewhere in the league once the ride’s over. The real question is whether the rest of the Red Sox can take the pressure off of him to do this thing alone.