With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein’s front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.
The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail.
Murphy’s introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform.
He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy’s Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs’ measure, which would’ve ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.)
Murphy’s performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it’s also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn’t just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn’t able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.
The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.
So could a reunion be in the cards?
“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Epstein said the day after the Cubs’ 2018 campaign ended prematurely. “It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.
“So I think he’s gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that’s in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain.
“We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.
For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn’t sure “what league” Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.
Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.
The other aspect of Epstein’s comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn’t rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.
It’s hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote.
Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would’ve looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would’ve probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.
Still, Murphy’s hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn’t enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein’s statement about how the Cubs “look a lot better” with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.
Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy’s bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward.
But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs’ 2019 roster for a variety of reasons.
For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it’s tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn’t be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.
Murphy’s defense/range also doesn’t figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.
Offensively, Murphy isn’t perfect, either. He’s never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that’s a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent).
Then there’s the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.
Add it all up and Murphy’s potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.
But like Epstein said, don’t rule anything out.