Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dropkick Murphy

This is #4 of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2009 season.
But don't you get your hopes up high,
The kid's allright.
-Bettie Serveert

Chances are, on Opening Day, 2008, you had no idea who Daniel Murphy was.

By the end of the season, he was at the forefront of all our consciousness, after his surprise ascension to the Majors, punctuated by his penchant for working counts, getting big hits and generally hustling every moment he was on the field.

On Opening Day, 2009, he'll more than likely be starting for the Mets in Left Field.

That's not to say that he's a given to repeat his strong showing from 2008. It's not a knock on Murphy by any means, but given that there were certainly sexier options for the Left Field spot available to the Mets during the offseason, it was really a tremendous show of faith by Minaya and Jerry Manuel to pretty much go out and say that they're handing the Left Field job to Murphy based on his two months worth of work in the Major Leagues.

But Murphy endeared himself to everyone pretty much from the second he set foot on the field on that evening in Houston. You'll recall that Murphy nailed a hit off of Roy Oswalt in his first AB, and later in the game made an acrobatic catch out in Left Field and turned it into a double play. Within a week, Murphy had become an Overnight Sensation, compiling a key RBI hit, a 3-hit game and a Pinch-Hit HR, and followed it up with another 3-hit game within the next few days. Murphy was here to stay, and through his first month in the Majors, he was hitting a robust .333 with 23 hits and 13 RBI in 27 games. The fans, and Mets Management, obviously, ate it all up.
But lost amid the shuffle of the continual bullpen meltdown and the more glaring failures of the men around him was the fact that Murphy came back to earth bigtime over the final few weeks of the season. Yes, the case could be made that Murphy was a victim of the myriad left-handed starters the Mets faced down the stretch. Yes, the case could be made that Murphy still made most of his hits count. But the numbers stick out. Over the final month of the season, Murphy hit .245 with 4 RBIs. The final two weeks, Murphy could only muster a .152 clip (5 for 33) with 3 RBIs, none in the final week, which concluded for him by failing to bunt Reyes over to 2nd against the Cubs, bobbling a grounder in Left Field against the Marlins, and striking out as a pinch hitter on the final day of the season.

That said, it wasn't as though Murphy was completely clueless throughout this stretch. More likely, he was just coming back to earth after his hot start, as most players are apt to do. There's no way of knowing, definitively, what Murphy is as a Major Leaguer based on his 49 games and 131 At Bats in 2008. Overall, though, you had to like what you saw out of him. Though his fielding was subpar, it was understandable because he hadn't played Left Field before 2008. At the plate, he showed polish and discipline not seen in players with his experience. He was certainly deserving, at worst, of making the club outright in 2009, in a platoon in Left Field with Fernando Tatis. This was assured once it was clear that the Mets weren't going to make a run for Manny Ramirez.
But Manuel surprised all of us when he stated, rather boldly, that Daniel Murphy would probably be the everyday left fielder at the start of the season, against righties and lefties. Murphy, who apparently worked out like a demon for most of the offseason, had gained such high regard from his Manager that he was willing to give Murphy the job outright. No questions asked. It's his.

Well, all right then.

It's an awful lot to put on the shoulders of a young guy like Murphy, because both he and Ryan Church stand to shoulder a lot of the Mets offensive fortunes. More than likely, we'll see either Church or Murphy batting 2nd in the lineup, with the other batting 6th, and Wright, Delgado and Beltran in between. Both of them, basically, have the same responsibility in this lineup. Hit, get on base, and remain consistent doing both. It will have a massive impact on how pitchers will pitch to the 3 sluggers in between the two of them.

In my capsule on Church, I noted that when Church was going well, teams couldn't pitch around Beltran and Delgado to get to him. When he was bad, which, down the stretch, he was, teams worked to get to him regularly, and Church justified the move every time. Basically, the same can be said of Murphy. Should Murphy hit in the #2 spot, he'd be wise to do two things with consistency.

1) Take no less than 2 pitches with less than 2 strikes, allowing Reyes to steal should he be on base.

2) Improve his bunting should the situation call for him to bunt Reyes up a base.

Given what we've seen from Murphy, I think it's safe to say that 1) can be counted on. 2) remains to be seen.
It's always a bit unsettling when you know that your team is going to hand a key position and a key spot in the batting order to someone who is, for the most part, unproven. Given the way the fortunes of the Mets have fallen over the past couple of seasons, it's very easy for the Mets fan to be skeptical. The fear, of course, is that Murphy is given the job and falls flat on his face, hitting .185 by the end of April and never gets going. But an awful lot of people seem pretty confident that this won't be the case. Murphy himself seems pretty determined to make us all believe. He's assuming an awful lot of pressure to succeed.

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