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Nolan Ryan Prefers Mitch Moreland to Albert Pujols?

Early Friday morning, Texas Ranger owner Nolan Ryan turned some heads with a surprising comment about the Rangers’ offseason plans. While the Rangers had made it clear earlier this offseason that they are focusing on acquiring pitching, as one of the large market teams with a weak first baseman, most people expected them to be players in the bidding for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols.

Well, think again:

“Making a seven-or-eight year deal for Fielder or Pujols is not something our organization is prepared to do,” Ryan said. “I very much expect Mitch Moreland to be our first baseman next year.”

Mitch Moreland may be a solid first baseman and a young player with good upside, but to state the obvious, he’s no Fielder or Pujols. Is Nolan Ryan making a mistake to write off pursuing either of them?

 There are two things to consider when evaluating this decision: Mitch Moreland’s upside and the Rangers’ budget space. At 25 years old, Moreland got his first change to play full time in the major leagues last season, and he was adequate. Kind of. He produced well worse than any of his preseason projections suggested (Marcels proj.: .347 wOBA), and he was in many ways the definition of a replacement player: 0.4 WAR, eight percent below average offensively, and below average in the field as well.

The good thing about being young and a former top prospect is that teams will overlook your performance for a long time if they think you might still break out. Nolan Ryan seems ready to trust in Mitch Moreland going forward, but if I were him, I wouldn’t be so confident in Moreland. For reference, here’s how another former first base prospect produced at age 25:

That’s not to say that Moreland will end up like Kotchman, as he’s already flashed more power in the majors than Kotchman did, and not every prospect that fizzles out to such an extent. I’m merely presenting the comparison to make a point: Moreland is at a crossroads, and he either needs to start hitting for more power or risk turning into a worse fielding version of Casey Kotchman. He’s already entering his age 26 season, so that power better come soon if he wants to turn into even a league average first baseman.

The Rangers likely realize this, though, but they’re still placing their faith in Moreland. How come? They not have much of a choice. According to Cot’s, the Rangers already have $67 million committed to salaries for 2012, and that’s not counting arbitration settlements for Mike Napoli, Nelson Cruz, Mike Adams, David Murphy, Elvis Andrus, and Matt Harrison. If you include their projected arbitration cost ($31 million), that gives the Rangers a $98 million payroll without signing a single free agent — $6 million higher than their entire 2011 payroll.

How much money do the Rangers have to spend? How high can they push their payroll? It’s difficult to say. Last season’s payroll was their largest since 2003, and we have yet to see exactly how high they can push their budget with their new television deal in place. Even if the Rangers were to increase their payroll to the $120 million level, though, that leaves them a finite amount of room to make moves this offseason. Fielder or Pujols alone would fill that gap, and it wouldn’t allow the Rangers to buy the pitchers they need.

Mitch Moreland is not an ideal first baseman, especially on a roster that is dominated by powerful right-handed hitters and lacks pop from the left-hand side. But if the Rangers want to invest money in pitching and sustain their core, they may have no choice but to let Pujols and Fielder both go to franchises that can afford them.

Like, you know, the Marlins.