Daniel Murphy as the 2012 Mets

This much we know: Daniel Murphy does not look pretty playing the field. Hell, Murphy himself will tell you as much. He rarely appears comfortable at any position, even the ones where he seems to be decent. His instincts in the infield look strong on balls hit near him, but he is prone to errors of aggression and of inexperience. His movements are at best herky-jerky, even awkward – at least by the standards of professional athletes.

Yet last week, Terry Collins called Murphy the favorite to open the Mets’ 2012 season at second base, where he has played all of 43 games in his professional career and where he suffered season-ending knee injuries in both 2010 and 2011.

But that’s a good thing! Not the injuries or the inexperience, of course — those are bad things. Rather, the Mets’ willingness to try the relatively untested Murphy at second base appears to be, given their circumstances, the right move.

As we all know, the circumstances are woeful: They apparently can’t afford to compete for big-name free-agents anymore (though there weren’t any available for the keystone anyway), and for a variety of reasons (Murph’s latest injury among them) it didn’t seem to make much sense to trade Murphy or anyone else to try to bring back a more obviously viable middle infielder. They need good, inexpensive hitters in their lineup, and with Ike Davis at first, David Wright at third and Jason Bay’s contract in left, there’s no better way to get Murph regular at-bats than by trotting him back out to second and hoping no overeager or ill-intentioned baserunner comes at him too hard too early in the season.

So they’ll go with it.  And I think Daniel Murphy the second baseman — in January, at least — stands as perhaps the best metaphor we’ve got for the Mets’ 2012 season.

In penciling Murphy in for second, the front office seems to be making the smartest possible move for a team with such limited resources. But it presents a great risk with the potential for a good reward.

If it goes well and Murphy proves an adequate defensive second baseman, he’ll likely rank among the better players in the league at the position. But since he’ll probably never be as good as Dustin Pedroia was in 2011 on either side of the ball, the best possible outcome for Murphy — like the Mets — appears to be “very good.”

Mets fans have come to celebrate Murphy’s offense and seem to assume, given the offensive standards at second base, he’d be among the very best at that position if he could hack it there. But his strong 124 wRC+ from 2011 would rank him sixth among Major League second basemen in both 2010 and 2011 — not quite elite — and certainly less-than-stellar defense would mitigate his value. Plus, though Murphy will turn 27 in April and might still improve a bit at the plate, his success last year was largely batting-average driven.

That is to say: We strongly suspect Murphy can hit a bit and we really have no idea if he can field. If he proves he can do both and stay healthy, he’ll be good, but he’s unlikely to be good enough at either to be great. And all of that, to me, sounds a hell of a lot like the 2012 Mets.

The very believable downside to playing Murphy at second is the chance that it’s an unmitigated disaster. He could get hurt again, or he could prove so unspeakably bad at fielding the position as to make Mike Pelfrey gnaw his whole damn hand off and R.A. Dickey eschew Shakespeare for Sartre. And no matter what the ultimate outcome, we must recognize now that every one of Murph’s hiccups along the way will be berated and GIFed and plastered all over back pages and blogs.

LOLMets, you know?

It’s important to note that I’m not saying the Mets’ 2012 season hinges on Murph. Not at all. He could be awesome and the team could suck, or — though it’s inherently less likely — vice versa.

What I’m saying, and the conclusion to all that best-case scenario stuff, is not really all that groundbreaking: At second base and elsewhere, the Mets’ front office seems to be doing the best it can with its limited resources. But because the resources are limited, they have been and will continue to be forced to take risks with limited rewards.

The good news is that they’ve still got enough talent that the rewards, if they all pay off, are high enough to allow the team to contend. And it’s good that many of the players, like Murphy, are homegrown, likable and appear to be dedicated, and are under team control for long enough to be part of the club when next it is they do start fielding more inherently competitive teams.

The bad news is that risks are risky, and spreading first basemen all over the field, going with untested players at multiple positions, relying on several guys to return healthy from long injury absences, counting on a very shallow pitching staff, and hoping that an adjustment to the walls will fix the franchise’s best player add up to a hell of a lot of risk. And the contingency plans are basically Justin Turner, Ronny Cedeno and Miguel Bautista.

 

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