Daniel Murphy has been the Mets' biggest and unlikeliest star this postseason, but his pending free agency will create a tough choice for New York.
As philosophical conundrums go, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has certainly been in trickier spots. But still, if he has both a brain and a heart—and there is ample evidence of both—he might be facing a decision that a few weeks from now will be keeping him up at night: What to do with Daniel Murphy?
This was already a dilemma last off-season, when Murphy and the Mets avoided arbitration with a one-year, $8 million deal. It was a dilemma again as the trade deadline neared this summer and New York had to decide which players to pursue and which might need to be jettisoned. Now it is a dilemma that is at once careering toward a resolution (he’ll be a free agent five days after the World Series ends) and also getting more complicated each time that Murphy—a Mets lifer like few the faithful have ever seen—steps onto the field.
Murphy, as you (and Mr. Alderson) know by now, is the planet’s hottest hitter. He is treating the National League’s premier aces—guys like Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta—as if they were batting-cage pitching machines. Murphy now has five home runs in seven postseason games, all off that quartet of frontline pitchers, and he is the eighth player ever to homer in four straight postseason games. He beat the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS practically by himself (home run, RBI double, savvy stolen base), and he made an atypically graceful diving play to close out Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cubs.
Chicago is terrified of him. In Game 2, its manager, Joe Maddon intentionally walked Murphy, who hit 14 home runs during the regular season, to face cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes, who hit 35. “I didn’t want to mess with it,” said Maddon of the Murphy mojo.
Each time that Murphy comes up to bat at home, Citi Field rocks as if the Beatles were in town, circa 1965. People scream and call his name. And in the men’s room in the highest reaches of the stadium, bearded beery guys break into chants of “Re-sign Murphy! Re-sign Murphy!”
Of course, catering to the will of your fan base, as Alderson and all major league GMs know, is no way to run a baseball team. This is a cold and calculating business, every point of OPS translatable into a dollar figure. Murphy, who is 30 years old, is likely to command a three- or four-year contract worth about $10-$12 million a year. (See Kendrick, Howie; see Headley, Chase.) That does not appear to be an investment New York's owners are keen to make.
Maybe, though, Alderson should work on them. Murphy was drafted by the Mets in the 13th round in 2006 and reached the majors with them two years later. He has a career batting average of .288, hits plenty of doubles, shows glimpses that he could be a consistent 15–18 home run hitter and, in 2015, was the toughest man in all of baseball to strike out, with just 38 whiffs in 538 plate appearances. Murphy is not an elite slugger by any means, but he has always been a guy who could spend 30 months at sea, step ashore and lash your best fastball into the gap—using his fishing pole.
He is also full of try, and that has been at the heart of what has become, long before this postseason spectacular, an almost numinous relationship between Murphy and Mets believers. When he makes his strange plays in the field—throwing the ball to third when he should have stepped on first, throwing to home when he should have gone to second—it is usually because he wanted to do too much. As manager Terry Collins said a few days ago, fondly, “He is always trying to find an edge.… Sometimes it works.”
Murphy is an infielder. He used to be an outfielder. That experiment went awry when, in April 2009 against the Marlins, he dropped a routine fly ball in leftfield that would up costing the Mets both runs in a 2–1 loss. After the game, Johan Santana, the losing pitcher, said: “I’m pretty sure he was trying his best.”
Murphy is a heart–on-his-sleeve type guy, and he is usually terrifically humble. When he was asked about this postseason’s most remarkable play, in which he snuck past some snoozing Dodgers to go from first to third on a walk to Lucas Duda in NLDS Game 5, he immediately began crediting Duda for drawing the walk in the first place. Or earlier in this unlikely Mets season, when the team was on a long winning streak, Murphy was asked about a slump he was in. “I haven’t been swinging the bat well, but that’s 11 in a row for us,” he said. “So who cares how I’m swinging the bat?”
You can’t exactly say the Mets have a glut of talent at middle infield, ready to ascend if Murphy is gone. But they do have younger, faster, cheaper options. They have Wilmer Flores, who is 24 years old and has nice power. They have 21-year-old Dilson Herrera, a top-50 prospect with a nice track record of minor-league hitting that may—or may not—translate to the majors. They have Ruben Tejada, who before being assaulted by the Dodgers' Chase Utley at second base during the Division Series appeared to have regained his steady high-level of play—sharp on ground balls, scrappy at the plate.
Murphy can play second base or third base or first base, and he will never win a Gold Glove at any of them. But if David Wright’s back acts up again (and medical science says it will), Murphy can fill in just fine at the hot corner. That’s worth a couple of million bucks right there.
On this current team, only Wright, the team captain, has been a Met longer than Murphy. He has been there all along it seems. He played at Shea. After he hit that home run off the Cubs' Arrieta in Game 2 on Sunday night, the crowd roared and roared and called him out of the dugout for a curtain call—just like the Queens crowd used to do for its home-run hitting heroes back in 1986. At that moment in the stands, a long-suffering fan named Sonya Levine declared of Murphy. “He is literally the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
For his first at-bat of each game, Murphy strides up to the strains of the infectiously rambunctious Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys. The song is called “I’m Shipping off to Boston” and it made its mark in the 2006 Martin Scorsese film The Departed. Know this Mr. Alderson, whatever your final calculus: Mets fans very much hope that that movie title will not, a month or two hence, be a description of Murphy himself.