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Murphy Remains an Option in the Indians’ Right Field Mix

Murphy Remains an Option in the Indians’ Right Field Mix

| On 17, Mar 2015

When Indians outfielder David Murphy signed with Cleveland following the 2013 campaign to a two-year, $12 million contract, he knew he was signing up to be part of a platoon situation with the Tribe.

After several seasons as a regular left fielder for the Texas Rangers, it was a change for the veteran outfielder, but one he seemed willing to embrace for a team on the rise and coming off of a trip to the American League Wild Card game in 2013.

Murphy had a serviceable season in his first year with Cleveland and may have seen more playing time than he may have initially anticipated after a slow start and overall poor season from Ryan Raburn, who battled injuries and a general lack of playing time while never really seeing his bat take off at the plate.

A year later, the situation is certainly different. What was once a two-man platoon in right field has turned into a position with a plethora of options for manager Terry Francona. In addition to Murphy and Raburn, Nick Swisher could see time in the corner outfield spot with the success of Carlos Santana at first base. The team also acquired the left-handed hitting Brandon Moss from the Oakland Athletics and he too will need a regular spot in the lineup to maximize the benefits of the pop he can provide the offense. Even 26-year-old outfielder Tyler Holt, who appeared in 36 games late last year and who is having a solid spring at the plate so far, could factor into the mix.

It all adds up to a lot of names to fill two slots in the lineup between right field and designated hitter.

For Murphy, he may see more playing time in the early going than as the season progresses. The continued rehab of Swisher, who does not appear as though he will be ready to break camp with the Indians, should create additional at bats. Moss is coming off of a significant hip injury and is easing his way back onto the playing field, and Raburn has been slowed again with knee issues.

Murphy had a much better 2014 after struggling in his contract year of 2013 with the Rangers. He played in 129 games for the Indians and hit .262 with a .319 on-base percentage. He played in 13 fewer games than the previous season, yet had 13 more hits than the year before while putting up comparable power numbers with 13 extra runs batted in. He finished the year with just eight home runs, the fewest he had hit in any full season in the Majors, and 58 RBI.

He is not going to light the world on fire with his defense and, looking at some defensive metrics, he was near the bottom of the sheet among regular right fielders in the American League. He made only three errors during the season (.986 fielding percentage), but his range factor was below league average and he may have missed chances to make more plays had he run better routes to the ball. He had played only eight innings and one game in right the previous season and around one-third of his Major League outfield appearances at that position.

What Murphy did provide the Indians was a surprising proficiency of clutch hitting with runners in scoring position. He hit .360 on the season with 50 RBI in that situation. His average was one of the best in the league and was fourth-highest among all AL players with at least 25 at bats with runners at either second or third, trailing teammate Michael Brantley, who hit .376.

With a runner on third and less than two outs, he was a lock more often than not. In 18 at bats, he hit .556 with 25 RBI, trailing Brantley’s 27 for the team lead in that situation.

Murphy’s best season was in 2012, when he hit .304 with a .380 OBP in 147 games, all career highs in a full season for the former first round pick of Boston in 2003. He hit 15 home runs and drove in 61 with ten stolen bases and a career mark with 54 free passes.

The 33-year-old Murphy has been in this position before entering a season, yet has always accumulated 400 at bats or more over the course of the year. That may not be as feasible this season, but with early injury concerns already slowing down some of the participants in the right field log jam, it is possible that Murphy’s presence as a security blanket will come in handy.

Murphy is hurt by the lack of right-handed options in the outfield and in the lineup in general. Brantley and Michael Bourn are both pure left-handed hitters, as is his former roommate and minor league teammate Moss. This could give a leg up to right-handed bats, Raburn and Holt, while it is still unknown if the switch-hitting Swisher will even be much of a factor in the outfield coming off of double knee surgery.

Murphy’s opportunities will most likely come in right field. He is not a viable option in center field, and while he could spot Brantley in the lineup for a day off or to allow Brantley to slide to center to give Bourn a breather, he would be an obvious downgrade, especially against left-handers. Brantley has hit .289 against southpaws in his career, while Murphy has hit .253 and just .242 last season.

Regardless of how the camp battles in right field play out, Francona will find a way to get the best out of Murphy for as long as he remains on the club. Their long relationship, dating back to the pair’s time in Boston together, has given Francona faith in the veteran and his “good guy” persona have made him valuable in the clubhouse. If the front office feels that they need to make a move to keep a younger and more versatile option, such as would be the case for Holt to make the Opening Day roster, Murphy could be a player the team would target to move as a potential trade piece.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer