It seems almost a shame at the moment, what with Daniel Murphy at the apex of his career as a New York Met. But a month from now, this will be one of baseball’s most pertinent questions: What will Murphy make on the open market?
“It’s kind of cliché,” Murphy said Sunday night. “But I try not to think too far ahead.”
Leave it to his agents to salivate at what’s to come.
Murphy is, as Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta said following the Mets’ 4-1 victory Sunday night, “the hottest hitter in the postseason.” His two-run, first-inning blast off Arrieta in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series provided all the runs the Mets would need and brought his totals to four straight games with a home run and five in his seven postseason games. The Mets’ record for postseason homers in a career? That would be five, a mark Murphy now shares with Mike Piazza.
“I definitely am seeing the ball well right now,” Murphy said. “So that’s nice.”
Murphy has spent his entire career with the Mets, who drafted him in the 13th round in 2006, the year New York last appeared in the postseason. Now, with six full big-league seasons behind him, he will be free to test the market. The Mets, all year, have seemed prepared to move on, a decision that last week didn’t even seem terribly significant even though Murphy had started to hit in the heart of the club’s order.
Previously, there was some discussion as to whether the Mets should extend a qualifying offer to Murphy. That amounts to offering a one-year, $15.8-million contract to a team’s own free agent. He’s welcome to take it (though since the system went into place following the 2012 season, no player has). But if he signs elsewhere, his new team is forced to give his old team a draft pick as compensation. It’s part of baseball’s pursuit of competitive balance.
Murphy made $8 million this year, the last season in which he was eligible for arbitration. And while agents and executives – each of which batted around the idea over the past week — don’t necessarily expect Murphy to average $15.8 million over the course of a multi-year deal, Murphy draws comparisons to impending free agent Ben Zobrist for his versatility. Zobrist, 34, is four years older, but he plays better defense at a variety of positions.
According to baseball-reference.com, the current offensive player Murphy most closely resembles is Miami infielder Martin Prado. Prado signed a four-year, $40-million deal with Arizona prior to the 2013 season (and has since been traded twice). Given that baseball’s revenues continue to rise, it’s hard to imagine Murphy wouldn’t match those numbers – and if he continues to destroy the best pitching the postseason has to offer, he’ll exceed them, perhaps by a lot.
To reiterate: Murphy’s homers have come against the game’s best pitchers. A left-handed hitter, he took all-world lefty Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers deep twice in the division series, then followed up with a solo shot off Cubs lefty Jon Lester in the Mets’ Game 1 victory. His other homers have been against the two right-handers who should place first and second, in some order, in the NL Cy Young voting – Arrieta and Zack Greinke of Los Angeles. He is now 10 for 28 (.357) in the postseason.
“I still made some good pitches to him,” Arrieta said Sunday night. “But anytime the ball has some height, and he’s able to get the barrel to it, it seems like he’s going to do some damage.”
Which is not the reputation Murphy had even last week. One of his selling points is his ability to make contact. In an era in which total strikeouts rise to record levels annually, Murphy went down on strikes just 7.1 percent of the time, the lowest rate in the majors. When he swung at a strike, he made contact 97.5 percent of the time, the highest rate in the game.
These skills may not translate to dollars or years, though. Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, also a free agent, struck out more frequently than any hitter this year (31 percent) and made less contact on pitches in the zone than anyone in the American League (75.8 percent), yet he will could command a nine-figure contract because of his power.
But there is precedent for postseason success adding value to a deal. In 2004, right-hander Derek Lowe posted a decidedly mediocre 5.42 ERA for Boston, yet went 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA over four appearances as the Red Sox won the World Series. Lowe got a four-year, $36-million deal from the Dodgers. That same year, Houston outfielder Carlos Beltran hit .435 with eight homers and 21 runs scored in 12 playoff games. A career .284 hitter, Beltran signed a six-year, $119-million deal with the Mets. And last offseason, Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, whose career offensive numbers are only slightly better than Murphy’s, landed a five-year, $95-million deal from Boston based at least partly on his role as a postseason hero in San Francisco’s 2012 and ’14 World Series runs.
Whatever the numbers end up being, major league executives are watching Murphy right now, and they see how feared he has become. With one out and a runner on second in the third inning of a game the Mets led 3-0 Sunday night, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon elected to intentionally walk Murphy to get to Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, whose arrival in August fundamentally changed New York’s offense.
“‘Ces’ hit 35 bombs this year,” Murphy said. “I was surprised.”
Maddon’s thinking, though, was clear.
“I didn’t want to mess with it,” Maddon said.
Understandable, given Murphy’s tear. “We’ll have to neutralize him,” Arrieta said. If they don’t, his price this winter could go even higher.