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Breakout by Moreland could put Texas over the top

Washington says designated hitter can be 'very productive bat,' urges him to relax

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers manager Ron Washington is not sure if Mitch Moreland will be in the Opening Day lineup.

His uncertainty has nothing to do with Moreland's tight oblique muscle. That problem is minor. Moreland took batting practice inside Thursday without any issues and should be back in the lineup by Sunday. Moreland said there was zero chance of being on the disabled list to start the season.

"It's feeling good," Moreland said. "I just didn't want anything to linger and carry it over into the season. It's just a little tight and we don't want to take any chances. So we're going to take care of it and be ready to go."

Washington is unsure because the Phillies have named left-hander Cliff Lee to start against the Rangers on Opening Day. If the Rangers were playing the Phillies on July 15, the left-handed-hitting Moreland would not be in the lineup against a tough left-hander like Lee. Since it is Opening Day, Washington is considering letting Moreland play.

"I've got 11 more days to figure it out," Washington said.

Letting Moreland play on Opening Day would reaffirm what Washington already knows. Moreland, hitting in the No. 6 spot as the primary designated hitter, could be the difference between the Rangers having a good lineup and a great one.

"He is going to be huge," Washington said. "He can be a very productive bat. He is huge."

To be huge, Moreland needs to be short. He needs to be short and compact in his swing, work the counts and make contact across the entire field instead of taking big swings trying to pull the ball. If Moreland can make that adjustment and maintain it for a full season, Moreland could be a true difference-maker in the lower half of Texas' lineup.

"I've been working on it and I think I've been getting there," Moreland said. "I'm seeing more pitches and I'm getting in better hitter's counts. I need to get back to grinding out at-bats."

Moreland's ability to grind out at-bats was the main reason why he replaced Chris Davis as the Rangers' first baseman in 2010. The club knew back then Moreland did not have the same power as Davis. But Texas felt back then Moreland would produce consistently tougher at-bats and not be prone to excessive strikeouts.

The results have been mixed. Moreland struck out once every 6.2 at-bats in the Minor Leagues and once every 4.4 at-bats in the Majors. His on-base percentage has gone from .382 in the Minors to .364 in his rookie season to .299 last year, when he had 117 strikeouts and 45 walks in 462 at-bats.

The American League had 57 players strike out at least 100 times, but Moreland did so once every 4.43 at-bats, 13th-highest in the league. His .299 on-base percentage was the 10th-lowest in the league among qualifying players.

"Last year is last year," Moreland said. "I did some good things and not so good things. I'm looking to build on what I'm doing here, get my work in and look forward to the season."

Moreland has followed a bizarre pattern the past two seasons. Both times he has started off well at the plate before suffering a hamstring injury in June that required a trip to the disabled list. Both times Moreland struggled after coming off the DL.

Combine his pre-disabled list numbers for the two seasons and they reflect a hitter the Rangers would welcome to the middle of their lineup. Before his injuries, Moreland hit a combined .281 with a .333 on-base percentage and a .539 on-base percentage. In 356 at-bats, he hit 24 doubles and 22 home runs while driving in 54 runs.

The Rangers would take that over a full season.

"Mitch is a grinder," Washington said. "He wants to do well, maybe too well and he puts too much pressure on himself. He needs to relax. Just be Mitch Moreland and not concern himself with the other stuff. Just have a good time."

Maybe it doesn't help that Davis had a breakout season for the Orioles last year, hitting 53 home runs and driving in 138 runs. But the Rangers have never been looking for big home run numbers from Moreland.

"He has power, he doesn't have to make sure he tries to use it," Washington said. "He just needs to make sure he stays short and take a true path to the ball."

Moreland will likely bat sixth and be the DH. Last year, the Rangers' DHs combined for a .698 OPS, 10th-best in the AL. Their No. 6 hitters combined to drive in 73 runs, which was tied with the Astros for the sixth-most from that spot.

On a team looking for more offense and more production from the lower half of the order, a breakout season from Moreland would indeed be huge.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.
Read More: Texas Rangers, Mitch Moreland