Murphy sets sights on second chance
Mets vet, facing yet another position change, has opportunity to win second-base job
Before hitting indoors at a High Intensity Training Center with Mets minor leaguer Jeff Flagg in their hometown on a rainy Tuesday, Murphy opened up about his aim to emerge as the Mets' starting second baseman in 2011 as well as the "dirty" takeout slide that prematurely ended his season last year.
"I've been talking to Terry [Collins], and he said I'm going to get as good as chance as anybody to win that job," said Murphy, whose primary competitors are Luis Castillo, Brad Emaus and Justin Turner. "First and foremost, it's about doing something to help the ballclub win in whatever capacity that may be. He told me first and third, I need to be able to do that as well. But my goal is to play second for 162 games."
Collins did not bring up any further dabbling in the outfield -- where Murphy started 57 games for the Mets in 2008 and '09 -- but Murphy has been taking pop-ups out there at least twice a week at his alma mater, Jacksonville University, anyway. Coincidentally, Murphy's brother Jonathan also is being moved to second base this season on that college team.
"I said, 'I know you want to win that second-base job. You're going to get that opportunity. But you better be ready to play some first base and some third base, because they're going to need backups also,'" Collins said.
Murphy, a third baseman for most of his minor league career, was thrust into left field at the start of his major league career despite extremely limited experience there.
He then was poised to be the Mets' Opening Day first baseman last season. That plan abruptly ended when Murphy "popped a little bit" the medial collateral ligament in his right knee while trapped in a rundown during a Grapefruit League game the final week of spring training.
The platoon of Mike Jacobs and Fernando Tatis fizzled in Murphy's place to open the season, but Ike Davis made his major league debut April 19 at first base and took off. Davis has a stranglehold on the position, at least barring the dream-worthy event the Mets land Albert Pujols next offseason, so Murphy is now an aspiring second baseman.
That may be a lot to ask for a player known primarily for his hitting. (As the story goes, when Murphy was asked his position upon arriving at Jacksonville University as a freshman, he confidently answered: No. 3 hitter.)
At least, Murphy indicated, moving to second base is easier than being thrust into left field -- or even his dabbling at first base -- because it more closely resembles his natural position at third.
"Third spring training. Third position," said Murphy, who will turn 26 on Opening Day. "But I think anybody in my position, all you can ask for in spring training is an opportunity to win a job. And this is the third spring training I've had an opportunity to win a job.
"It's been a little bit easier the last two years because I've spent so much more time on the dirt, playing infield. I've played some second before in the minor leagues. I played in high school. So it's not quite as foreign as I think left field was to me, and even probably first base."
Murphy has not appeared in a major league game since Oct. 4, 2009, when he started at first base against the Houston Astros. He could have contributed to the Mets as a utility player during the second half of last season, but a more severe injury to the same knee ligament torpedoed that goal.
Murphy was learning second base at Triple-A Buffalo to prepare to return to the majors as a utility player when Syracuse Chief Leonard Davis, a Washington Nationals farmhand, rolled into him while trying to break up a double play June 2. Murphy suffered a severe strain of the medial collateral ligament.
Although he did not require surgery, Murphy ended up sidelined until participating in the Mets' fall instructional league in Fort Myers, Fla.
The slide not only cost Murphy a chance to appear in the majors last season, it cost him financially. While Murphy was playing for Buffalo, the Mets could have left him on a major league rehab assignment for up to 20 days. But four days into his rehab assignment, upon moving Murphy from Class A St. Lucie to Buffalo, the organization chose to officially make Murphy a minor leaguer by optioning him to Triple-A.
As a result, for the remainder of the season after the injury occurred, Murphy collected a minor league salary rather than the prorated remainder of his $419,000 major league salary -- about a 40 percent loss. He also did not get major league service time for the remainder of the season, which he would have received had he still been on the major league rehab assignment when the injury occurred. That means it will take longer for Murphy to be arbitration-eligible and ultimately to be a free agent.
Davis did not play the day after Murphy was injured, in that series' finale between Buffalo and Syracuse. And no retribution was attempted against Syracuse in the nationally televised matinee that ended up being phenom Stephen Strasburg's final minor league game before a promotion to the Nationals.
But Davis -- who received ugly, threatening letters from Mets fans -- was hit by Dillon Gee the next time the teams met, on June 29.
The remainder of the season, the sides regularly plunked each other, including a Bisons-Chiefs game July 4 that included four batters -- Gee included -- getting drilled.
Murphy said Davis has never apologized to him, although Davis did ask then-Buffalo pitcher Bobby Parnell how Murphy was doing later that night.
Murphy and Davis had been on the same Arizona Fall League team in 2008. Murphy, doing a blog for Major League Baseball's website during that AFL season, even had written about Davis in an Oct. 28, 2008, entry, offering condolences on the loss of a family member.
"I'm not angry," Murphy said Tuesday. "I feel like it was a questionable slide. It was a dirty slide. And the game has a way of evening itself out. I was not in the greatest position to defend myself and protect myself, which in the grand scheme of things has helped me working, because I know how to defend myself now. It was frustrating to get hit like that. But that's kind of the way the game goes sometimes.
"Bases loaded, and I guess he wanted to come and get me a little bit -- try to make sure we didn't turn the double play. I don't know if he meant to do it or not. I haven't talked to him. He talked to Bobby Parnell. He told Bobby to tell me he hoped I was doing OK. But other than that, I haven't talked to him."
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Murphy has been working out at Jacksonville University for six weeks, preparing for spring training. He had suffered a mild hamstring injury while playing in the Dominican Republic this winter, but he assigned the blame to overwork during the afternoons training at second base and is showing no lingering effects.
"I feel like I have enough versatility to help this team win," Murphy said. "I feel like I'm good enough off the bench. I've done well enough in my career pinch-hitting [.317, 2 HRs, 12 RBIs in 41 ABs] that in some capacity I'm going to be able to help the 2011 Mets to win a pennant."
Still, his ambition is to start at second base.
"The biggest thing I've been working on is trying to shorten up my 'stroke' [throwing motion]. It's definitely gotten better," he said. "I think with the work I've been able to do in the offseason as far as my footwork, it's helped out a lot."