It seems like everyone in every corner has decided Murphy is not and will never be a starting Major League first baseman. Sabermetricians, beat writers, newspaper columnists, WFAN callers. Everyone.
I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m just not willing to make any definitive conclusions about the career of a soon-to-be 25-year-old (hey, happy birthday, Murph!) who didn’t completely embarrass himself (at the plate) in his first season and two months of big-league play.
Of course, now Murphy’s limping around Port St. Lucie with a sprained knee, and there’s been some speculation he could start the season on the Disabled List. I’ll proceed as though he won’t, or that he’ll at least return to being the Mets’ everyday first baseman in short time.
The Major League first baseman in April: Murphy, Fernando Tatis and one of Frank Catalanotto or Mike Jacobs.
Overview: Look: I’m not aiming to defend Murphy for being among the worst starting Major League first basemen in terms of on-base percentage and slugging average in 2009. He did not hit like a capable starting first baseman on a competitive team. That’s for certain.
But that’s not to say he will never hit like a capable starting first baseman on a competitive team. That’s my point. Murphy’s season — on some surface level — appeared to pick up down the stretch in 2009 when he started hitting for more power, but a closer investigation reveals that he almost entirely stopped walking.
That would be a damning sign for a more experienced hitter, but for a young player like Murphy — one who entered the big-leagues in 2008 with only four plate appearances above Double-A — I’ll chalk it up to him honing his game and hope that the patience develops.
Murphy’s defense continues to subject him to beat-writer snark, even though he was statistically among the best in the Majors at first base by both UZR and +/-. He certainly made a few missteps at first base to go with his one ridiculously amazing (and certainly ill-advised) behind-the-back assist, but I thought he looked plenty rangy in the infield, if occasionally confused.
Of course, I pay attention to those stats, so maybe my eyes are biased.
I’ll hold out hope that Murph’s defensive excellence was for real, and that he can hit well enough to give the Mets the right type of problem with Ike Davis coming up the pike.
Few doubt that Davis has more offensive potential, and I am not among those few, but perhaps if Murphy can hit like, I don’t know, Aubrey Huff with plus defense, it will be enough for the Mets to consider shifting Davis to right field if Jeff Francoeur’s not performing. Granted, they’ve got Fernando Martinez for that situation, but that’d be the best kind of logjam. Well, maybe the second best kind of logjam.
I’m getting way, way ahead of myself. Here’s the point: Murphy sucked at hitting last year. Despite what you may think, he was probably actually good at defense. And no matter what anyone says, a little over a year of Major League service time is not enough to predict certain doom for any 25-year-old. Ask Huff or Lee May or scores of other guys who went on to productive careers after shaky starts.
Not to say Murphy will, of course. For every guy that does, a dozen more never do. That’s how baseball works. But stop telling me he’ll never be a Major League first baseman. No one knows what he’ll never be.
Spelling Murphy, the Mets will have Tatis, who’s a lot better than most Mets fans think he is. Of course, he’s most valuable for his defensive versatility, something that won’t be put to great use when he’s backing up first base, and he doesn’t hit lefties much better than he hits righties, so he’s not an ideal platoon partner. But he’s pretty good nonetheless.
Sometimes, probably, the lefty bench bat — be it Jacobs or Catalanotto or (fingers crossed) longshot candidate Chris Carter — will see some time at first. If it’s Jacobs, he’ll hit home runs and play poor defense. If it’s Catalanotto, he’ll get on base and play better defense than Jacobs. If it’s Carter, he’ll likely hit more home runs than Catalanotto but fewer than Jacobs while playing better defense than Jacobs but worse defense than Catalanotto.
The Major League first basemen in September: Davis, Tatis and Jacobs/Catalanotto.
I realized today that using “September” as the endpoint here is weak due to 40-man roster expansion, so I figured I’d throw in a bold prediction here and guess that Murphy’s not even on the team by the end of the season.
This is sort of silly, but I can kind of envision a situation playing out similar to the one the Mets endured in 2004: Murphy, like Ty Wigginton that year, plays well but unexceptionally. The team, fumbling on the fringes of contention and in need of a spark, calls up Davis, rendering Murphy redundant. Murphy gets traded, and goes onto a reasonably productive career as a poor-fielding but versatile and decent-hitting journeyman.
That’s a very specific prediction. Oh, and the pitcher the Mets trade Murphy for has a wife who poses for Playboy and wears inappropriate clothing to the team’s annual Christmas charity event for local schoolchildren, and they’re forced to cut bait on that pitcher just to get rid of his loudmouthed wife, even though they’ve just signed him to an expensive contract he clearly didn’t deserve. But the upside is they land John Maine in the deal.
How they stack up: This is funny. For all that “Daniel Murphy is the worst first baseman in the Major Leagues” stuff bandied about this offseason, the first basemen in the N.L. East leave a lot to be desired. Ryan Howard’s pretty awesome. That much we know.
But Adam Dunn, the Nats’ first baseman, was so bad defensively last year that by WAR — a stat that accounts for both offense and defense — he was only barely better than Murphy despite hitting 38 homers with a .398 on-base percentage. Actually, if you go by WAR, Fernando Tatis was more valuable to the Mets than Dunn was to the Nats last year. That’s how much Dunn hurt Washington with his glove, according to that stat.
The Braves will start Troy Glaus, a converted third baseman who will likely hit better than Murphy if he’s healthy, but who missed nearly all of 2009 with shoulder problems. The Marlins have pegged to start Gaby Sanchez, a rookie who is actually a year and a half older than Murphy. Sanchez hit well in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year.
All three of the non-Howard guys could be better than Murphy, but I’m not willing to say any of them will certainly be. Glaus will if he stays healthy, but that’s far from a lock given his history. I’ll guess Murph, as long as he’s around, plays as the 4th best first baseman in the division, maybe 3rd if he’s lucky. Not great, but probably not befitting all the rage this offseason.
UPDATE, 4:45, p.m.: According to SNY, Murphy has been diagnosed with a Grade 1 MCL sprain and the Mets have given the massively vague window of 2-6 weeks for his recovery. Omar Minaya has pegged Mike Jacobs as the favorite to start in his stead, but I’ll go ahead and assume everyone will be clamoring for Murphy once Jacobs exposes his inability to get on base or play defense in those 2-6 weeks.