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Talking through the Mitch Moreland deal

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Is it a good decision for the Red Sox?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, the wait for the Red Sox to do a thing finally ended as the first domino fell in Boston’s offseason. Unfortunately, the thing the Red Sox did was not the thing that many people were waiting for the Red Sox to do. It wasn’t quite what people were expecting, and it certainly wasn’t what people were hoping for. In bringing back Mitch Moreland on a two-year, $13 million deal, Boston made an underwhelming move as their first of the offseason. The order of their moves doesn’t matter, of course, and all that really does matter is the final result of the winter as a whole. That being said, there are fans on both sides of this move, and admittedly I am more on the negative side than the positive one. Moreland is on the Red Sox whether we like it or not, though, so let’s take a quick look at the many different aspects of this signing and try to talk our way through it.

So, to get started it’s important to acknowledge that even while I am no fan of this signing, it certainly isn’t something that is going to make or break this team. There is still an assumption that someone else — J.D. Martinez reamins the favorite — is going to be added to the lineup. Moreland is merely a minor, secondary addition to the big bat that is yet to be added. The new/old first baseman coming back does not doom this team, the sky is not falling and they aren’t conceding the division to the Yankees by making this move. It’s possible to not like this move while also acknowledging all of these things.

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

On the other hand, my issue with this move boils down to one simple conclusion in which I am fairly confident: Mitch Moreland isn’t all that good. The first baseman had some strong stretches in 2017 and seemed like a great guy both in general and in the clubhouse. I have nothing against him personally. But as a player, he’s not very good. He’s played something close to a full season six times over his career, and he’s been a below-average hitter in four of them. Even in 2017, when he supposedly surpassed expectations, he still finished the year with a below-average 98 wRC+. It’s true that he was dealing with a broken toe and flu issues that likely hurt his production, but at the end of the day we have enough of a sample size over his career where it’s hard to expect anything better than a league-average hitter, and likely something worse. One can live with that, but it’s far from ideal at an offense-first position like first base.

It’s not just that I’m not wild about Moreland as a player, either. If you look at the market for first base, there were a multitude of cheap options on the board. I was of the opinion that the team could be fine leaving Hanley Ramirez as the primary option there, but can acknowledge that’s a major risk given his health issues. Still, if they decided they needed another first baseman in the organization, there were other options. Everyone is talking about this in the context of avoiding Eric Hosmer, but A) we don’t yet know what kind of contract he’ll sign, so that might not be as positive as you think, and B) Hosmer was not the only other first baseman available. Guys like Lucas Duda, Logan Morrison, Yonder Alonso and Matt Adams are also left-handed bats who provide more offense and will likely be had on similar two-year deals. It seems hard to believe that Moreland was so much better than these options that you have to jump in early and get this done rather than waiting out the market for a little while longer.

There are positives involved with this deal too, though, and even I can acknowledge that. For one thing, Moreland is a strong defensive first baseman. I didn’t think he quite played up to his reputation with the leather in 2017, but he was clearly above-average and an upgrade over most other options. Many will point to traditional positional adjustments and how little first base defense matters, but I am of the mind that the sabermetrics community generally underrates first base defense. It’s not on the same level as shortstop or center field, of course, but it can certainly be important. This is particularly true for a team like the Red Sox that could have some question marks in its infield.

There’s also the contract, which is incredibly cheap. My initial reaction to seeing the deal was how weird it was that Moreland cost a two-year deal given how lackluster his career has been. He doesn’t seem like a player to whom you’d have to commit multiple years. However, this is another sign — like the recent Dodgers/Braves team — of the new baseball world under the new CBA. I would assume they could have signed Moreland to a one-year deal fairly easily, but preferred this method so he’d cost the team less on an annual basis. Remember, Average Annual Value is how players’ contracts are calculated for luxury tax purposes, not their salary in any given year. With harsher penalties for those who exceed the luxury tax threshold, teams are clearly much more conscience of their payrolls.

Above all else, the biggest deal with this move is how it affects the rest of the roster. We’ll go more in-depth on this issue later in the week, but I think it’s worth mentioning right now. With Moreland in the fold and the assumption that another bat will be following him to Boston, the Red Sox have a decision to make. There is a way to make this work without anyone having to leave the roster, though the most likely result of that is Hanley Ramirez getting far less than the 497 plate appearances he needs for his option to vest. I get trying to prevent that option, but I still think he deserves a chance to make a real impact in this lineup. That being said, there is some smoke building around the idea that someone is going to be moved. The team would like to trade Hanley Ramirez and his contract, but...uhh...good luck with that. There is also the possibility of trading Jackie Bradley, Jr., which would be a mistake in my eyes. Dave Dombrowski surely has a plan, but it seems more likely than not that it’s a different plan than the one I’d employ.

At the end of the day, that’s what this really comes down to. If I were in charge, I would have gone about things differently. I can’t really imagine a scenario in which I’d be bringing Moreland back to this roster. As I said, I don’t think this is a catastrophic mistake or anything close to it, but it’s not the optimal move either. Dombrowski is a hell of a lot smarter than me and this could easily work out. Perhaps a reduced role will help Moreland flourish at the plate. Perhaps Ramirez isn’t nearly as likely to bounce back as I believe he is. There are arguments in favor of this deal, and there are bigger fish to fry for this Red Sox team. Still, looking solely at this re-signing of their 2017 first baseman, I am of the belief the Red Sox would have been better off going in a different direction.