In order to catch the Los Angeles Dodgers and win the National League West for the first time in franchise history, the Colorado Rockies need to feature one of baseball’s best offenses and at least three reliable starting pitchers. On Thursday night, Colorado made the kind of move required to displace the Dodgers from atop their perch in the division. Now, the Rockies need to keep spending.
On Thursday, Colorado reached an agreement with infielder Daniel Murphy on a two-year, $24 million deal according to multiple reports. Murphy will presumably replace second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, who is a free agent and expected to earn over $50 million. Instead of giving LeMahieu some of the money that will likely go toward extending star third baseman Nolan Arenado, the Rockies opted for an affordable stopgap that keeps them competitive without bloating their payroll.
Entering his age-34 season, Murphy remains one of the game’s smartest and peskiest hitters. A well-documented transformation under former Mets hitting coach Kevin Long helped turn Murphy from a reliable singles and doubles hitter into one of the game’s most feared hitters—feared not because of how hard or how far he could hit the ball, but because of how difficult he was to solve. In 2015 and 2016, Murphy finished with a strikeout rate of under 10% (near the top of MLB both times) while clubbing extra-base hits at rates commensurate with the game’s most dominant players.
After propelling the Mets to the 2015 World Series with one of the greatest postseason performances in recent memory, Murphy arrived in Washington to continue his late-career surge from a reliable bat to an elite one. In 2016, Murphy finished second in NL MVP voting after hitting an eye-popping .347/.390/.595 with a career-high 25 homers and 47 doubles. He followed that up by hitting .322/.384/.543 with 23 homers and 45 doubles in 2017, logging fewer hits, but scoring more runs (94 up from 88) and taking more walks (52 up from 35). His 2018 campaign was mostly marred by injuries, but he still finished .299/.336/.454 over 91 games between the Nationals and Cubs.
Murphy might be aging, but if a hitting coach had to make a perfect player out of limited athletic gifts, that player would look a lot like the veteran infielder. His command of the strike zone seems to improve annually, his line drive rates are consistently among the best in baseball. He’s a player that makes any lineup better, and his line-drive swing will play well in the cavernous confines of Coors Field. Even if his power numbers are on the decline, his gap-to-gap hitting will play perfectly in the friendliest hitter’s park in baseball.
There are some red flags as Murphy ages: his hard-hit rate plummeted to 28.5% (still a respectable number) after he cleared 40% in 2016 and ‘17; his exit velocity decreased for the second consecutive season (from an average of 89.6 mph to 87.6). His defense has never been strong and is regressing into poor as he ages, thus the Rockies would be wise to move him to first base, top prospect Brendan Rodgers to second and the hacking Ian Desmond to the bench.
This shouldn’t be the end for the Rockies—they should trade for a controllable young arm to join German Marquez and Kyle Freeland at the top of their rotation—but this is a great example of a low-risk signing that can push a team from the division series into competing for a pennant.