I can’t speak for everyone here at Bleacher Nation, but I know that whenever I begin a new analytical-type article, I like to start completely from scratch (i.e. with no outline written, conceived in my headbrain, or otherwise). Obviously, I’ll go in with biases, opinions or ideas of where something might go – that’s unavoidable, as far as I can tell – but usually, I like to let the data and logic take me where it will.
For example: When I dug into the Cubs payroll obligations and projections for next season, I was caught off guard by how much less flexibility they might have than I initially expected (ditto the Brewers).
And that brings me to a couple of articles I’ve read recently, one from Cubs.com – Cubs May Consider Re-Signing Murphy – and another from NBC Sports Chicago – Should the Cubs Bring Daniel Murphy Back in 2019?
I respect the opinions and analysis there, but it’s hard for me not to scream NO WAY right off the bat. In other words, without really digging in or knowing where the rest of this post will take me, my *current* opinion is that Daniel Murphy won’t be a fit or bet with the Cubs heading into next year, such that a substantial contract is a good move. But is that really fair? I’m honestly not sure, and, like I said, I’m trying to avoid just having the data and analysis take me to where I was going anyway. So, let’s start from a position that, “Yeah, maybe the Cubs should re-sign him.”
First thing’s first: fit. And we can attack this three ways, positionally, competitively, and in the clubhouse.
With Addison Russell likely done playing for the Chicago Cubs (that’s not a guarantee, of course), we must admit that the Cubs have an obvious opening on the infield if they want, be it at short or second. Javy Baez could very well be the everyday shortstop in 2019, so unless you go out and sign Manny Machado, while Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo will take their usual posts on the corners, who plays second base?
For as much as I love David Bote – ESPECIALLY as a complementary utility piece – he simply cannot be handed a full season of plate appearances at second base for a should-be divisional favorite just yet. And as for Ben Zobrist, even if he is as good next season as he was this season, his playing time – particularly in the infield – will continue to be limited as he approaches age 38. That process of laying off the gas began two years ago and will only increase as time goes on. The Cubs could use a second baseman. Period. Positionally, Murphy fits (albeit as a not-great defensive second baseman).
And I’d argue competitively, depending on how good you think he’ll be next season, Murphy fits, too. The Cubs are in the thick of their competitive window, and that means that no player is too old or too expensive to target *if their production is expected to be up to snuff (more on that in a second).* IF you think Daniel Murphy will be good again next year, then who cares how old he is or how much he costs, within reason?
By Theo Epstein’s own admission, it’s time to start measuring things in terms of production, not talent, and, over the last few years Murphy has produced.
And finally, Murphy’s fit in clubhouse has been reported as off-the-charts. According to Epstein, Murphy was “really respected” by his teammates, who loved talking hitting with him: “long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain” was something that happened on a daily basis. And Ian Happ said that his professionalism and demeanor was “out-of-this-world impressive” and set a great example for him and some of the other young hitters.
In this regard, Murphy likely has a great deal of value both in terms of directly impacting his teammates’ approach at the plate, and in terms of keeping an entire clubhouse on track and in the right spirits.
So I think I can concede that positionally, competitively, and in the clubhouse, Murphy is a fit. But that’s only half the story. We still need to consider his expected offensive production, his injury history, his defense, and the other available options.
We discussed this back when the Cubs first picked up Murphy, but it really does bear repeating: From 2016-2017, Murphy wasn’t just a very good hitter, he was one of the game’s most elite bats. In 2016, his 157 wRC+ was fifth best in the entire league (four spots better than Kris Bryant (in his MVP season, no less)) and in 2017 his 135 wRC+ was among the top 25 in baseball (top 15 in the NL). He won a Silver Slugger award both seasons.
But in 2018, things were quite different. Murphy still hit reasonably well in 351 plate appearances: .299/.336/.454, but his 110 wRC+ was a far cry from its once-elite levels. But that doesn’t really tell the full picture. Murphy got off to a late start (more on that in a second), but after a quick 10-game adjustment period, actually slashed .338/.380/.503 (134 wRC+) before his trade to the Cubs. That’s legit. Had he kept up that level of production through his time in Chicago, I think this conversation could’ve gone very differently.
However, his time with the Cubs was just decent (nothing more, nothing less): .297/.329/.471 (115 wRC+). Unfortunately, even if you’d be willing to take a 115 wRC+ at second base next season, I’m not convinced that’s something you could count on. During his time with the Cubs, Murphy’s hard contact rate was well below average (28.5%) and that was an improvement from his time with the Nationals (24.6%). Given how much Murphy relies exclusively on his hit tool for value, that’s a discouraging development and not one that’s unexpected, given his age (and this all goes without mentioning the steep drop in his walk rate and ISO, or the increase in strikeout rate and ground ball rate).
Although Murphy’s age is not a concern in terms of wanting to add a guy to this roster at this time, you *DO* have to factor in his age – 34 next year – when projecting out further potential offensive decline in 2019.
Then there are the injuries and defense – we can tackle these together. Even when Murphy was fully healthy and at his best (2016, 2017), he was not a good defender. In fact, you could say he was productive, despite his defense, not because of it.
2016: -9 DRS (20th out of 21 qualified second basemen)
2017: -15 DRS (16 out of 16 qualified second basemen)
Thanks to knee surgery after the 2017 season, it’s fair to say his defense was at an all-time low in 2018 (the eyes told us that one), and I have no reason to suspect that’ll get better with age.
Finally, there’s the whole historic free agent class thing.
If the Cubs get Manny Machado, for example, the infield is set and totally awesome (Bryant, Machado, Baez, Rizzo). If the Cubs get Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant is more likely to stay on the infield, and maybe you just roll with Zobrist, Bote, and maybe even Ian Happ at second base – all three would be better defensively, and Harper might make up any gap in the offense.
But even without either of those superstars, there are other second-base options out there: Marwin Gonzalez is just 29 and can also play everywhere else defensively, and Jed Lowrie just posted a 5.0 WAR season with some awesome peripherals (we’re gonna dig into him this winter at some point, without question). And the trade market always has options, as well.
To an American League team that can periodically or regularly DH Murphy, he might be worth a multi-year deal for significant value. That is also a factor when evaluating what the Cubs would have to pay to retain him.
Finally, there are the comments about the gay lifestyle from a few years back, which were sufficiently alarming that the front office had to first check with ownership on whether they could even acquire Murphy in August in the first place. Maybe he has changed (we still don’t really know), but it was a consideration for the organization then and it therefore figures to be a consideration now.
So at the end of the day, here’s the way this thing shakes out:
- Fits positionally
- Fits in the clubhouse
- Age not a concern in short-term, given the Cubs competitive window
- Provided elite production quite recently; has an excuse (knee injury, late start) for apparently down 2018 season
- Potentially degrading offensive skills
- Recent, significant, and impactful knee surgery
- About as bad defensively as a big league second baseman can be and still start
- Other, more attractive options are available in free agency (Machado, Harper, Gonzalez, Lowrie) trade (Whit Merrifield?), and potentially even on the Cubs (Zobrist, Bote)
- Could get stronger contract offer in American League
Ultimately, I can’t say the pros outweigh the cons on this one. Murphy very well may turn in a huge offensive season next year (if Ben Zobrist can bounce back at an advanced age, Murphy no doubt could as well) and could help steer a still-young offense in the right direction, but he was showing signs of wearing down even before the knee surgery, which creates considerable risk.
Unless the contract was so unbelievably affordable that you just couldn’t say no, I can’t imagine the Cubs being wise to go after Murphy. That’s not to say it would be a bad idea to have a conversation, but I think I’d prefer to explore many available alternatives first.