Daniel Murphy was once a third baseman.
Apparently he wasn’t particularly good at that position, but that was his natural spot out on the field.
When he was first called up to the majors in August 2008, the Mets threw him out in left field, as obviously they already had a third baseman (where was Murphy in 1970 when they needed him?). He learned the position on the fly. He wasn’t great, he wasn’t even good, but he wasn’t "Todd Hundley" bad, either.
After the season, instead of working on his outfield defense, the Mets had him play second base in winter ball. He wasn’t good; he didn’t have the footwork and quickness needed at that position, and that was the end of that experiment. He was given the left-field job in 2009, dropped a fly ball against Florida, and it was all bad (okay, really, really bad) from that point on.
Finally, he was moved to first base, where he wasn’t really, really bad. He made physical errors. He made errors in judgment. He dropped balls. But he showed promise. He was better than Mike Piazza.
And now the debate is on: can Murphy field and hit enough to warrant being the starter at first base?
He may not necessarily be handed the position with Fernando Tatis, Mike Jacobs, or Ike Davis around, but he’ll most likely be the starter, with some type of platoon with Tatis, although Jerry Manuel recently said that Murphy’s his guy.
Left field has been a black hole for the Mets the last few years, with guys like Tatis, Murphy, Moises Alou, Angel Pagan, Gary Sheffield, Jeremy Reed, Cory Sullivan, Endy Chavez, Trot Nixon, David Newhan, and Ricky Ledee all taking a turn. Now, Jason Bay will solidify that position, and essentially replace Carlos Delgado in the lineup. So first base will take over as the mystery spot in the offense.
One camp’s theory about Murphy goes something like this: He’s a DH, and he may not even hit enough to warrant being a starter at that position, and even though he hasn’t turned 25 yet, and only has one full season under his belt, he is what he is—a low on-base-percentage guy who won’t hit home runs. And he can’t field no matter what position he plays.
A second Murphy camp holds another opinion: He’s only 24, he only has one full season in the majors, his worst stretch of hitting came when he was failing and falling down out in left field, he's settling into first base, he's made adjustments at the plate, and hit at a .282 clip, with a .485 slugging percentage after the All-Star break, and ended up with a total of 38 doubles for the season and even led the team in home runs with 12.
He’s still developing, they say, so maybe he’ll blossom into a .300 hitter who’ll learn patience at the plate, and hit 25 home runs a year.
And then there’s a third camp’s theory about Murphy: Who knows?
As for Murphy’s defense, he sure looks a lot more comfortable at first than he did in the outfield. Being a third baseman makes for a smoother transition. You’re already standing on dirt, after all. He’s been working with one of the all-time greats, Keith Hernandez, which can only help.
Murphy apparently didn’t get much help from Luis Castillo last season, though.
Hernandez asked Murphy if Castillo was signaling to him what pitches were on the way to help with his positioning, and Murphy replied, “No.” Thanks for the help, Luis.
Murphy wasn’t always sure when to go for the grounder in the hole, and occasionally lost track of the ball while trying to find the bag, but those are fixable mistakes. He was aggressive on the 3-6-3 double play and made a few highlight reel plays, including the behind-the-back, spectacular flip, which was the play of the year. But let’s put it this way: He can’t be any worse than Delgado was.
The Mets are going to need David Wright, Carlos Beltran (if he ever comes back), Jason Bay, and Jeff Francoeur all to hit 25 to 35 home runs this year if they’re going to be successful. So, the offensive power shouldn’t hinge on whether Murphy can hit 25 dingers this season.
If the Mets fail because Murphy could only hit 14 or 15 long balls, a lot more must have gone wrong for the team than their first baseman’s lack of power. The Mets once won a World Championship with their first baseman hitting 13 home runs, swatting 34 doubles, and slugging .446, so a team can win if they don’t have a masher at first (okay, Keith Hernandez also batted .310 with a .413 OBP and won a Gold Glove, I’m just saying).
Is there no room for improvement for Murphy? That seems hard to believe. Can he play a more-than-adequate first base? I think so. Can he improve on his batting average and power numbers? I think so.
It’s his lack of ability to draw a walk, and wait for better pitches to hit that will be the hardest to improve on. But he’s only had one season of work so far. If he is what he already is, then it’s Ike Davis’ turn.
With all the other question marks for the team—starting rotation, set-up guy, health, fundamentals, Wright’s rebound, Bay’s debut season as a Met—Murphy at first is the least of their problems.