Thirteen months ago, the Mets found themselves noticably thin in the outfield corner spots. Moises Alou had appeared in a mere 15 games, and would not play again this season (and perhaps ever; he has not played in the majors since). Ryan Church was still battling the effects of post-concussion syndrome. Endy Chavez had been an absolutely dreadful hitter, and his all-world defense was not appreciated by the front office (full disclosure: after every single Endy Chavez at-bat, I wished to never see him bat as a Met again, so I didn’t appreciate him at the time either). Even Marlon Anderson was hurt, robbing the Mets of their worst possible choice to play left field regularly.
Omar Minaya made the call to bring up Daniel Murphy from Triple-A New Orleans after playing in exactly one Triple-A game. The plan from this point forward was to platoon Murphy with another young player named “Nasty” Nick Evans to hold down left field for the remainder of the season. Fernando Tatis was to play most of the time in right field until Ryan Church came back. Endy Chavez was kept around for late inning defense, since Evans and Murphy had only played 22 and 4 games in the outfield in their minor league careers to this point, respectively. It was part of the Mets’ philosophy at the time that if you were a bench player and were not the backup catcher, you could play in the outfield!
The results were mostly good. Evans thrived as a platoon righty, hitting .319/.380/.514/.894 in 79 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, though he struggled mightily against righties. Murphy was even better, hitting .313/.397/.473/.871 and showed no noticable platoon split, though Jerry Manuel only allowed him to bat 13 times against lefty pitching. Murphy’s success, as well as his intense playing style, earned him a lot of fans in the season’s final two months. In the span of a year, Daniel Murphy went from fringe prospect to starting left fielder. Not too shabby.
Yet in many ways, Murphy’s success at the end of 2008 may wind up being the worst thing that ever happened to him. The Mets, with a limited budget and Omar Minaya unable to brainstorm solutions for the outfield, annoited Daniel Murphy early on as their everyday starter in left field. Nick Evans started the year in Buffalo, after the Mets had acquired Gary Sheffield to serve as the team’s right-handed power bat off the bench.
Unfortunately, the Mets did not show much patience with Murphy as an outfielder. He last played left field in May, as Carlos Delgado went on the disabled list with a cranky hip, unlikely to return this season. Murphy has not played in the outfield since. No doubt, he made some costly errors out there, plays that cost his team runs, but he had limited experience in the outfield. Instead of being given the chance to grow into the position, or perhaps a demotion to the Triple A level to get more reps in a more forgiving environment, he was moved to first base full-time despite a bat that does not profile strongly enough to remain there. Developmentally, this season has been a huge step backwards for Murphy.
Evans, on the other hand, got off to his own slow start, but with the bat. The spotlight doesn’t quite burn as bright in Buffalo, though, as criticisms like these were the extent of what he faced, a far cry from four daily newspapers and three local sports cable networks blowing up every miscue. More importantly, Evans got reps in the outfield as well as at first base, helping him grow more accustomed to playing left field, and even a handful of games in right. Avoiding the Mets disaster in favor of the Bisons disaster was the best thing that could have happened for Evans. By season’s end, his power had bounced back, he showed good patience at the plate, and he continues to display a skill for mashing lefty pitching.
Looking towards the future, the extra year Evans spent in Buffalo helped give him reps in the outfield, which will make him a more versatile player. He can play three positions at least adequately, and he can hit well against lefties. He’s not going to be a star, but he will have a specific role for which he will excel; right handed bench bat. If anything else, he will keep the Mets from spending $1-2 million on a guy like Marlon Anderson or Julio Franco when he can outperform both for less money. There is a value to what he does.
Murphy’s future is much more cloudy. Because he has only 63 games played in the outfield over the past two seasons, his learning curve for the outfield will be that much steeper moving forward. He’s definitely no first baseman, his bat simply won’t play there. The Mets did more harm than good by allowing him to play first base regularly. Even starting Fernando Tatis regularly at first base and letting Murphy continue to work on his glovework and footwork in LF on the major league team would have been preferable to what they have done, especially considering the likes of Cory Sullivan and Jeremy Reed have gotten regular playing time since Sheff has been hurt. The problem with Murphy isn’t his athleticism in the outfield, it’s his inexperience. The book on him as an outfielder shouldn’t be closed yet.
It wasn’t any special patience the team had with Evans that allowed him to progress in Buffalo this year. It was their own lack of expectations that allowed Evans to become a better outfielder, and thus a better asset for the club. Likewise, their high expectations for Murphy led to his stock dropping as he struggled first on the field, and then with the bat. It will be that stubbornness that ruins Murphy’s value moving forward, yet the same stubbornness may wind up making Evans a valued bench piece in the future.