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Moreland's return provides comfort for Red Sox

Elder statesman embracing expanded leadership role this season
February 14, 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In a spring of shifting times for the Red Sox, the comfort of Mitch Moreland returning for another -- albeit somewhat surprising -- tour of duty could not have been better timed.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In a spring of shifting times for the Red Sox, the comfort of Mitch Moreland returning for another -- albeit somewhat surprising -- tour of duty could not have been better timed.

A free agent at last season’s end, even Moreland thought his time in Boston might be finished.

“It seemed like it wasn’t going to happen early,” said the first baseman, in his endearing Southern drawl. “I talked to a few other teams that seemed pretty interested, and then it seemed like it kind of shifted back around. I’m thankful it did. Like I said, this is where I wanted to be, where I wanted to play.”

Moreland waited and waited, and then was finally rewarded for his patience on Jan. 28 when he signed a one-year deal with the Sox that includes a 2021 player option.

Entering his fourth season with the Red Sox, Moreland is an underrated leader who will be relied on in the clubhouse more than ever. Mookie Betts, David Price and Rick Porcello are all gone, and Dustin Pedroia won’t be back anytime soon, if at all.

At 34 years and 161 days -- with a service time of nine years and 67 days -- Moreland is now the elder statesman in Boston. For that reason, he got the outdoor “bench treatment” with the media on Friday rather than talking in the clubhouse.

“This is big time! I don’t know if this is for me,” quipped Moreland. “This is my first bench session, y’all, take it easy on me.”

Moreland’s leadership has been most evident in the way he has taken Rafael Devers under his wing since the third baseman arrived in the Majors at the age of 20 in July 2017. Just mention Moreland’s name, and Devers flashes a big smile.

Early last season, when Devers was struggling defensively, culminating in an error that led to a walk-off loss in Chicago, Moreland sensed his friend was hurting. And as much as he tried to say the right things, he came up with a better idea and put Devers in touch with Adrián Beltré, a likely Hall of Famer once he is eligible in 2024.

“I got to talking to [Devers] one night and I was like, ‘Man, you don’t understand Mississippi and I’m struggling to understand [Spanish].’ We had this little bit of a language barrier obviously,” Moreland said. “I was like, ‘Man, I happen to know the greatest third baseman who ever came out of the Dominican Republic.’”

Moreland said he then asked Devers if he’d like to talk to Beltré. The young starlet probably said yes before he had even finished the question.

“Raf, he’s going to be a special player for a long time, so if he can learn a little something from Adrian to help him, great,” said Moreland. “I thought that would be a good one to know, a good one to talk to.”

It doesn’t take a long time in the Red Sox's clubhouse to realize that everybody loves Moreland.

“Obviously Mitch has been around for a long time, and he’s got that veteran presence and leadership quality that every clubhouse needs,” said left fielder Andrew Benintendi. “I was pumped to see him coming back.”

Befitting his personality, Moreland doesn’t put up flashy numbers (.252 average, 19 homers, 58 RBIs and .835 OPS last year). But he makes big hits, well-timed defensive stops and hardly ever ends a game with a clean uniform.

“Mitch is certainly important to what we do, important in his leadership role but also important in what he does on the field,” said interim manager Ron Roenicke. “Last year, we started poorly. I don’t know how many games it was, but I would say four or five of the first wins we had, Mitch won those games for us. I think he’s huge. When he’s out there, his numbers are really good. He’s dangerous.”

Moreland’s top goal for this season is to be healthier than he was in 2019, when a variety of ailments limited him to 298 at-bats.

“I don’t want to blame it on the short offseason from the year before -- we’d definitely take that every year -- but I got a lot of work in this offseason, trying to get my body in a good place,” Moreland said. “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 and stay on top of everything. So I’ve tried to do a few different things and get myself as prepared as possible and stay healthy.”

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.