ARLINGTON, Texas — As Mitch Moreland makes his return to Arlington this week, it's fair to say the marriage between Moreland and the Red Sox has gone about as well as possible so far.
Through the first half of the season, Moreland has been one of the best free-agent signings in all of baseball. He's fourth on the team in OPS, and he's produced almost at the level that Hanley Ramirez did last season for the Red Sox at first base.
He has been everything the Red Sox wanted.
"We've come to know Mitch — he is one tough SOB to deal with some of the things he's dealt with physically," manager John Farrell said. "He's come up big in RBI situations with his all-field approach. Things you begin to appreciate are probably more on a personal level and how he goes about his game every day as opposed to a glimpse of a five- or seven-day stretch [when he's on another team]."
"I just tried to go out and find a good place and somewhere I was happy and excited about playing," Moreland said of his free-agent search. "I've been happy so far, for sure."
It makes sense, then, to wonder whether either side would want to extend the relationship beyond 2017.
One of the reasons the Red Sox targeted Moreland rather than a higher-end name — such as Edwin Encarnacion — was the desire to sign a player for limited years. Boston didn't want to block any of its emerging infield talents.
Certainly, Sam Travis has impressed in a limited window of playing time this season — mostly against left-handed pitchers. However, the Red Sox may be breaking in a young third baseman in 2018 with Rafael Devers. And with Ramirez's ability to play first base with any regularity in question, would Boston be willing to turn over first base to an unproven player as well?
(One of the regrets then-general manager Ben Cherington expressed about his plan entering the 2014 season was relying on youth at too many positions at the same time, with Jackie Bradley, Jr., Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks all counted on to be everyday players.)
For his sake, Moreland isn't thinking that far ahead.
"That’s an uncertainty," he said. "This is where I'm at right now. I'm trying to make the most of it and enjoy every minute of it and have fun with these guys and hopefully win a World Series. That’s the main goal right now. We'll worry about the rest later."
Does playing in a contract year add any extra pressure on the field?
"It's been like every year of my baseball career so far," Moreland said. "I've always been year to year throughout my career, so it hasn't really changed anything."
On a night when Robby Scott and Craig Kimbrel each allowed runs out of the Boston bullpen, Heath Hembree helped save the day with two perfect innings in Boston's 7-5 extra-inning victory on Monday.
Hembree isn't Boston's best reliever, but he may be its most versatile. Farrell has been able to use Hembree for multiple innings, as he didMonday, and in shorter high-leverage stints.
Alongside teammate Matt Barnes, Hembree is tied for sixth in the American League in appearances with 38. He leads the team in relief innings.
"The beauty of that is that he’s not hung up on how he sees himself being used," Farrell said. "He’s invaluable because of the versatility. When he’s in a one- or two-out situation, I think that probably speaks volumes to the confidence we as a staff have in him to bring him in in key spots."
After some hiccups in early May, Hembree has pitched to a 2.66 ERA over the last six weeks.
The bullpen as a whole has continued to be a strength for the Red Sox all season, in large part because pitchers such as Hembree, Barnes and Scott have successfully taken on larger roles than anticipated.
"They’ve embraced the added responsibility," Farrell said. "Because, coming into the season, other than Craig Kimbrel, this wasn’t a group that was grabbing the attention of many because of maybe limited track records. But they’ve been very good.”
Xander Bogaerts was back in the lineup on Tuesday after missing the last two games with tightness in his left groin.