Not a Rookie: Daniel Murphy
There were some mixed signals coming out of Mets camp in February regarding first baseman Dan Murphy. In mid-February, GM Omar Minaya said that Royals reject Mike Jacobs would compete with Murphy for the first base job in spring training. This was contradicted a couple of days later by Manager Jerry Manuel, who said that it wasn't a true contest, implying that Jacobs (and Fernando Tatis) were around to provide pop on the bench.
Does Murphy have enough in his bat to hold down first base? Let's take a look at Murphy's development as a prospect.
Murphy played college ball at Jacksonville University, being used as a bench player his freshman year, then taking over a regular job at third base as a sophomore in 2005, hitting .329/.381/.429. In '06 he hit .398/.470/.534, with 34 walks and just 13 strikeouts in 221 at-bats, earning plaudits as Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year. Questions about defense and injuries hurt his stock with scouts, and he was just a 13th round pick despite his performance. He played 25 games split between the Gulf Coast League, Kingsport, and Brooklyn after signing, going 17-for-80 (.213) with two homers, 12 walks, and seven strikeouts. I did not put him in the 2007 book, but would have rated him as a Grade C prospect, pending more pro data.
Assigned to Class A St. Lucie in the Florida State League for '07, Murphy hit .285/.338/.430 with 34 doubles, 11 homers, 42 walks, 61 strikeouts and six steals in nine attempts over 502 at-bats. His OPS was okay at +8 percent, above average but not dominant. He drew positive scouting comments for his work ethic, feel for contact hitting, and solid gap-to-gap power. On the negative side, he made 35 errors at third base, plus scouts felt his range was just mediocre and he faced a move to the outfield or first base. I gave him a Grade C in the 2008 book, noting that he was a sleeper, but needed to show more pop with the bat, especially if he was going to switch positions.
Murphy played 95 games for Double-A Binghamton in 2008, hitting .308/.374/.496 with 13 homers, 14 steals, 39 walks, and 46 strikeouts in 357 at-bats. This earned him a promotion to New York when the Mets needed a bat, and he performed even better in his major league trial, hitting .313/.397/.473 in 131 at-bats. He was one at-bat beyond the rookie limit so I didn't put him in the 2009 book. I did write this comment about him in August 2008, writing that I expected him to settle down as a .280ish hitter with touches of pop, not a star but a useful player.
Murphy hit .266/.313/.427 last year in 155 games, 508 at-bats for the Mets, with 38 doubles, 12 homers, 38 walks, and 69 strikeouts. His career line is now .275/.331/.437, which I think is his true level of ability. He played mostly first base last year and UZR liked his glovework, with a 7.6 UZR/150 mark. Fielding Bible gave him a strong +14 rating, with 10 runs saved ranking as the second best defensive first baseman last year.
The numbers tally well with visual observation: he's slick with the glove.
But will he hit enough for first base? His overall WAR last year was 0.9, indicating (by that measure anyway) that his defense didn't fully compensate for a bat that is below average for a first baseman. Can the hitting improve? Murphy certainly has the size and physical strength to hit for more power, and at age 25 he is just now approaching his prime seasons where power production often increases. On the other hand, his power production has been quite steady since college, with little variance in his isolated power numbers. He hits a lot of doubles, and some of those could turn into more home runs in time. But even at his peak, I think Murphy will be hard-pressed to knock more than 18 or 20 in his prime seasons.
That said, I think he's the best choice to play first base for the Mets right now, keeping the position warm for Ike Davis. I would favor Murphy over Mike Jacobs and Fernando Tatis, since Murphy is a young guy who still has a chance to improve.