Note: During the MLB shutdown, the Globe will revisit its offseason “Around the Horn” series of position-by-position looks at the Red Sox to update with what we learned in spring training. Today: First base.
The presumption was that Mitch Moreland wouldn’t be back with the Red Sox this season. He was a pending free agent who had endured his share of injuries throughout last year. As a result, the then 33-year-old Moreland only accumulated 298 plate appearances. Additionally, the Sox were under a new program led by Chaim Bloom, who came from the Tampa Bay Rays, an organization known for pursuing cheap, controllable talent instead of veterans.
However, just before the start of spring training, the Sox and Moreland agreed to a one-year deal.
“This guy has a track record,” Bloom said at the time. “What’s under the surface and what’s under the hood gives us the confidence that he could do damage in a lineup.”
When Moreland is on the field, he’s an effective ballplayer.
“That’s always been my thing if I can continue to stay on the field, it will be better for me and better for the team,” Moreland said back in February. “I got a lot of work done in the offseason, trying to get my body in a good place and, obviously, I’m not getting any younger, so as the miles start adding up, you have to figure out different ways to keep yourself ready.”
Last year, he returned from the injured list in late July and hit .279 with an .811 OPS in 161 plate appearances. He can pick it at first, too, and is still nimble around the bag despite his age and injury history.
This spring, the Sox could have gone with their top prospect Bobby Dalbec at first base, a guy Bloom looked forward to seeing play. Bloom didn’t rule out Dalbec possibly making the Opening Day roster.
“He’s obviously a huge part of our future,” Bloom said. “I’m personally excited to get an up-close look at him and get to know him. We’re hoping he comes into spring training ready to impress.”
But once Dalbec was optioned at the end of the shortened spring, it was clear Moreland was the Red Sox’ guy since Day 1. The Sox will need Moreland more than ever and perhaps his largest task might not be on the field but in the clubhouse. There are other leaders and veterans in there, but Moreland is, essentially, the adult in the room. The team has gone through a makeover. Mookie Betts and David Price are in Los Angeles. Brock Holt is in Milwaukee. Alex Cora is out as manager and most likely facing a ban of some sort for his part in the sign-stealing scandal. They lost Chris Sale for the season because of Tommy John surgery. Moreland, as much as he can, has to be that calming presence as the Red Sox try to survive this makeover and injuries to the current roster.
“Maybe [my role changes] a little,” Moreland said. “I’m older. Definitely with [Price] and Mookie that’s a tough loss for sure. We still got a great team. Those two guys, they’re not replaceable. They’re great ballplayers. At the same time, we’re going to be fine and looking forward to getting back out there.”
Getting back out there, of course, will have the wait. Baseball, like the rest of the world, is in the thick of a pandemic. Everything is shut down indefinitely, including a season in which the odds of the Red Sox making the playoffs appear slim.
You would never know that when you hear Moreland speak, though. He has the confidence, better yet, the assurance that everything will be OK.
Moreland got only one plate appearance this spring after he was removed against the Atlanta Braves due to right hamstring tightness. Afterward, Moreland said he was fine, but you couldn’t help but wonder if this would be his fate in 2020, too.
The Sox have some depth there. They have Dalbec waiting in the minors. Michael Chavis filled in nicely for Moreland last season. They could platoon that position if need be. But this year might be more or less about presence than production, even though Moreland is more than capable of the latter.
“I try to tell myself,” Moreland explained, “we play 162 games and I’m going to be ready to play 162 days. That’s what I’m telling myself whether I’m coming off the bench or getting two at-bats or playing the whole game. Whatever they need me to do. That’s always been my mindset.”