The New York Yankees promoted catching prospect J.R. Murphy for the stretch run last week. As he's moved through the farm system, Murphy has maintained steady (although not outstanding) production at the plate, while making considerable progress refining his defense. Let's take a look at this Prospect of the Day and where he may fit in the future.
Murphy played high school baseball in Bradenton, Florida. A high-profile recruit for the University of Miami Hurricanes, he was drafted in the second round by the Yankees in 2009, requiring a $1,250,000 bonus to pass up college. At the time he was considered an extremely promising hitter, but quite raw on defense. Many scouts felt he would end up at third base or perhaps right field. He got into just nine games in rookie ball after signing.
Assigned to full-season Charleston in the Low-A South Atlantic League for 2010, Murphy hit .255/.327/.376 with seven homers, 36 walks, and 64 strikeouts in 330 at-bats, not terrible considering the fact that he skipped short-season ball, but not great either. He struggled on defense, giving up 13 passed balls and 11 errors in 53 games behind the plate. A conversion to third base was strongly rumored for '11.
He returned to Charleston to open '11, hitting an impressive .297/.343/.457 in 63 games. Promoted to High-A Tampa, he got into 23 games (hitting .259/.270/.365) before fouling a ball off his foot and breaking a bone, sidelining him for the rest of the year. He played some third base and was adequate, but the Yankees saw enough progress with his receiving to keep him behind the plate more often than not. He reduced his error (8 in 55 games) and passed ball (5) rates sharply, while throwing out 24% of runners.
Back at Tampa to open 2012, he hit .257/.322/.374 in 67 games and continued to improve with the glove. He followed with a .231/.306/.408 line in 43 games for Double-A Trenton. He split 2013 between two levels again, hitting .268/.352/.421 in 49 games for Trenton, and .270/.342/.430 in 59 games for Triple-A Scranton. He's thrown out 37% of runners this year.
Murphy is a 5-11, 195 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born May 13, 1991. Scouts have always liked his swing; although generally a pull hitter, he can go the opposite way at times. He was expected to hit for both average and power coming out of high school.
That hasn't really happened to the extent anticipated. Although he hasn't dominated offensively, he hasn't been bad, and has maintained and gradually boosted his production against better competition. He posted a 116 wRC+ this year at two levels, and was particularly productive against left-handed pitching at Scranton, posting a 1.076 OPS against southpaws, granted the 62 at-bat sample is small. His strike zone judgment is decent enough and he keeps his whiff rates at reasonable levels.
The big improvement for Murphy has been on defense: he's made a lot of progress behind the plate and is no longer fated to switch positions. Although he's not going to be a Gold Glove type, his throwing and receiving have steadily improved. His caught-stealing percentage has gotten better each year, his passed ball and error rates have come down, and scouting reports about his other catching skills are also more optimistic. He played 108 games in the minors this year, 105 of them behind the plate, no third base or outfield to be seen.
It remains to be seen how Murphy fits into New York's plans. He could be intriguing trade bait. He should be a useful platoon player at least, and if he continues to get better with the glove and produce steady numbers offensively, he could get beyond part time play and become a regular. I don't think he's going to be a star, but that doesn't mean he can't have a long and fruitful career.