Murphy Could Fill More than Platoon Role

Last Wednesday the Cleveland Indians signed outfielder David Murphy to a two year, $10 million contract with a team option for 2016 and most of Major League Baseball applauded. Could it lead to a much bigger reaction later this winter?

Murphy had a disappointing season in 2013 with the Texas Rangers, hitting just .220 with 13 home runs and 45 runs batted in. But in an offseason where the likes of 36-year old Marlon Byrd can cash in a two year, $16 million deal, picking up Murphy—who is four years younger—looks to be a steal for Cleveland. Since he’s a career .275 hitter, a rebound season in 2014 will give the Indians a good offensive piece at a great economical value.

The most obvious role Murphy can serve is a right field platoon with Ryan Raburn. Murphy, a left-handed hitter, has much better power in his career against right-handed pitchers and can take advantage of a short right field porch and warm jet stream to right center field in the summer at Progressive Field. That essentially eliminates Drew Stubbs place on the Indians roster, who hit .233 in 2013—a 20-point improvement from 2012.

Stubbs is due approximately $3.8 million in salary arbitration and it’s debatable as to whether the Indians will offer him arbitration by the Dec. 2 deadline. On the surface, the Indians don’t have a place for Stubbs on the roster and could use his salary elsewhere so non-tendering him seems logical. However, contracts like the one Byrd signed lends credence that Stubbs has some trade value since he is still younger and much more athletic than what an average outfielder is getting on the free agent market. The Indians could offer Stubbs arbitration on Dec. 2 and continue to shop him throughout the winter.

One thing is certain, though, the Indians currently have more outfielders than they need on their payroll or Opening Day roster.

While Murphy is most likely a right field platoon with Raburn, he has played the majority of his career in left field. In 2012, when Murphy had his best season as a big leaguer, he hit .304 with 15 home runs and a .380 on-base percentage. Murphy has hit double digit home runs every season dating back to 2008 and his career .275 batting average and .337 on-base percentage looks a lot like Michael Brantley’s career numbers.

Is it possible that if a deal presented itself that could improve the team, Brantley is now much more expendable?

Brantley is due $3.7 million himself this winter in salary arbitration. It’s his first year in arbitration and if he continues to put up the statistics he has the last two seasons that salary will climb the next two winters. He could potentially make around $6 million next season and even more after the 2015 season. That starts to get pricey for a guy who does everything well, but isn’t spectacular at anything. Brantley isn’t a .300-hitter, nor does he hit 20 home runs or steal 30 bases. He’s above average at everything, but not a star.  Meanwhile Murphy could provide the same offense—or better—over the next couple seasons for just $5 million per season.

And it’s possible the Indians could sign Brantley to a long term contract later this winter, buying out some of those arbitration seasons like they did a few years ago with Asdrubal Cabrera. However, it’s fair to believe the Indians are dedicating their time to a long term contract for Justin Masterson, first. Then, if finances permit it, they would try to extend Jason Kipnis before pursuing Brantley.

There might not be enough money in the bank to extend Brantley if more, higher priority players like Masterson and Kipnis are extended. But with three years of team control remaining, Brantley would likely serve as a very valuable trade piece this winter. He’s the kind of player that would force an organization to give up Major League ready talent, including a pitcher that could provide depth to the Indians’ rotation or shore up their bullpen.

You have to trade from strength to shore up weaknesses. Suddenly the Indians’ surplus of outfielders could make Brantley an available strength.

Murphy could provide the same offensive production Brantley has the last two years, without an escalating contract. If Cleveland offers Stubbs arbitration and trades Brantley, the same Stubbs and Raburn platoon in 2013 could return for 2014 while Murphy played left field. It’s likely by 2015, top prospect Tyler Naquin could be ready for the Indians outfield. A year from now Stubbs could be non-tendered arbitration to make room for Naquin at the big league level and Raburn could remain as insurance.

Granted, the Indians would not give Brantley away, nor would they openly shop him. They don’t have to trade him. All the reasons another team would want him are the same ones that would lend Cleveland to try and keep him, but Murphy’s signing does create a scenario where Brantley could be dealt.

Sometimes the small transactions lead to much bigger ones no one sees coming.

Photo: Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Like most of what your saying, but the one thing I don’t agree on is that Michael Brantley isn’t excellent at anything. The last two years, he has been one of the better hitters with runners in scoring position. I know he was top 5 this year, but thought he was good in 2012 (what website actually lists that, not even mlb.com seems to!). And his SB each year have gone up, he might be in the 20-25 range next year. Give him a long term deal!

    1. Easier said than done, Andrew. What if they sign Masterson and/or Kipnis and the money runs out before they get to Brantley?

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