Red Sox need more playing time for first baseman Mitch Moreland

BOSTON, MA - MAY 1: Mitch Moreland #18 of the Boston Red Sox hits a single during the third inning against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park on May 1, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MAY 1: Mitch Moreland #18 of the Boston Red Sox hits a single during the third inning against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park on May 1, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox need to start giving more playing time to first baseman Mitch Moreland at the expense of struggling center fielder Jackie Bradley.

Mitch Moreland has appeared in 25 of the first 36 games for the Boston Red Sox this season. That includes only four of the last eight games. That’s not nearly enough. Not the way he’s swinging the bat.

The 32-year old has been one of the best hitters in the lineup when given the chance. He’s slashing .342/.407/.671 with six home runs and 19 RBI in 76 at-bats.

The Red Sox plan coming into the season was to platoon Moreland at first base with Hanley Ramirez, riding the hot hand and playing the matchups. This has led to the envious dilemma of which one to play when both are hitting well. Hanely is hitting .291/.357/.441. Not quite the blistering pace Moreland is on but worthy of receiving ample playing time.

Fitting both players in the lineup requires the superior glove of Moreland to take over first base while Ramirez slides into the designated hitter spot. J.D. Martinez isn’t going to ride the pine, so he’ll shift to the outfield in this scenario.

Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi may get the occasional day off but finding room for Martinez in the outfield so that Moreland can play on a regular basis will mostly come at the expense of Jackie Bradley.

The historically streaky Bradley is mired in a dismal slump to begin the season. He’s hitting .178 with a .528 OPS. Only backup catcher Sandy Leon and the criminally misused Blake Swihart have been worse.

Bradley’s value stems from his glove. The defensive wizard is one of the top center fielders in the game. Having him patrol the outfield alongside Betts and Benny is a pitcher’s dream. The trio forms a no-fly zone where balls rarely drop in. Removing JBJ from that outfield would be a hit to the defensive alignment.

It may be worthwhile anyway.

Martinez won’t be mistaken for a Gold Glove candidate but he’s been suitable when given the chance this year. He has been the definition of average, posting zero defensive runs saved in 17 games split between both corner outfield spots. Benintendi is a natural center fielder who is capable of handling the position. He’s slightly below average (-2 DRS) in center field compared to a tick above average (1 DRS) in left this season.

The Red Sox would be downgrading defensively at two positions but would still be about average in those spots. Combine that with the otherworldly defense of Betts in right field and the outfield defense would be fine.

The dip in defensive value in the outfield is at least partially offset by cementing Moreland at first base. He’s a former Gold Glove winner who made a strong case for being a repeat recipient last year. Hanley is… serviceable, I guess. Rafael Devers doesn’t have the most accurate throwing arm on the other side of the diamond so the infield would benefit from having Moreland at first to pick balls thrown a bit off target.

Moreland’s career splits at the plate would appear to make him ideally suited for a platoon role. He has hit .243 with a .682 OPS against lefties in his career compared to .258 with a .788 OPS against right-handed pitchers.

Facing southpaws hasn’t been an issue this year. Moreland is hitting .316 with a .935 OPS against lefties. He’s been much better against RHP but he’s certainly not struggling. Bradley, who also bats from the left side, has hit an anemic .088 against lefties this year. These results only strengthen Moreland’s case for starting over Bradley.

Moreland’s bat will cool off eventually but he’s capable of sustaining solid production. He was hitting .285 with nine home runs last year before fracturing his toe. The veteran battled through the pain to stay in the lineup but clearly wasn’t able to drive the ball the way he did pre-injury when he earned the Mitchy Two Bags nickname.

Bradley could go on one of his patented hot streaks at any time to turn his season around. Benching him risks missing out on that opportunity. The move wouldn’t have to be permanent, but Moreland has to start over him as long as he’s tearing the cover off the ball.

Unless Moreland cools off, Bradley should be relegated to spot starts to give the other outfielders a breather or a defensive replacement late in games. He can also be useful as a pinch runner given the excellent stolen base success rate he’s shown over the course of his career.

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Bradley still has value to add to this team. However, at the moment, he’s less valuable in the lineup than Moreland is.