Former Texas Ranger David Murphy has reportedly agreed to a contract with the Cleveland Indians. As of this writing, the details are still coming out, but the deal is said to be for two years and about $12 million. It sounds like the new standard contract for platoon players in their thirties — see Jonny Gomes and David DeJesus for recent examples. Cleveland might very well be planning to platoon the left-handed-hitting Murphy with Ryan Raburn in right field. The combination could provide enough production at the right price to overcome concerns about flexibility while also filling out Cleveland’s lineup and allowing them a chance to take another shot at the playoffs in 2014 if they make some additional moves.
Murphy had easily the best season of his career for Texas in 2012, hitting .304/.380/.479 (129 wRC+) over a career-high 521 plate appearances while being valued at about four wins. Unfortunately for him, Murphy (who recently turned 32) then turned around in his walk year of 2013 and had the worst season of his career. He hit just .220/.282/.374 (73 wRC+), even worse when considering the Rangers have the most hitter-friendly home park in the American League. It probably was not difficult for the Rangers to let him go.
One would expect some sort of dead cat bounce from just about any player after his worst year, but Murphy’s 2013 performance was still discouraging given his age and the hitting environment in which he played most of his games. On the bright side, the problem seems mostly to have been his average on balls in play. His .227 BABIP in 2013 was the lowest of his career by far, and although hitter BABIP should not be treated like pitcher BABIP, as there is a wider variance of skill among hitters in this regard, it is highly unlikely that Murphy is anywhere close to being a .227 BABIP true-talent hitter. Murphy’s 2013 walk rate was also a bit down from 2012, but his strikeout rate improved and his rate of home runs on contact was basically the same. Murphy also had a higher rate of extra-base hits on balls in play in 2013 than in 2012. This is not to deny that 2013 was a terrible year for Murphy or that it should be discarded. It simply means 2013 was not devastating for Murphy’s projection.
Steamer hardly projects him to be a world-beating bat for a corner outfielder at .264/.331/.416 (.327 wOBA, 106 wRC+). Murphy is generally seen as average to above-average as a defender in left field, but the (apparent) shift to being mostly a right fielder will place more demands on his arm. However, if Murphy platoons with Ryan Raburn in right field, it should be pretty productive for Cleveland. Assuming this is Cleveland’s plan, it is a pretty good one.
Murphy has a pretty large observed split for his career. Taking his basic Steamer projection as the basis and plugging Murphy’s platoon numbers into the Platoon-o-Matic 5000 for regression, he projects as a dreadful .295 wOBA hitter versus lefties, but a decent .337 wOBA hitter versus righties. Right-handed hitters generally have smaller true talent splits, thus finding a right-handed hitter is less crucial to a platoon arrangement. But Raburn, though projected to regress heavily after having a career year for Cleveland in 2013, is a pretty good choice. Steamer projects him for an overall .324 wOBA in 2014, but as far as true talent platoon skill, my platoon wOBA estimates for him are .311 versus righties and .341 versus lefties. Assuming the platoon is implemented in ideal fashion in right field, Cleveland projects to get about a .340 wOBA in right field, which would be about average production. Raburn is making about $2.5 million over the next two years, and assuming Murphy is making between five and six million, that is less than $10 million for average production — quite good given what the price of wins seems to be this off-season.
Of course, in the real world a platoon is never implemented in ideal fashion. For various reasons, platoon players are going to end up facing pitchers on the same side, and opposing teams will make a point of trying to do this in crucial situations. Pinch-hitting is possible, but not always, and usually is accompanied by its own difficulties. This does decrease the value of a platoon. In addition, using two players for one position takes up an extra roster spot, decreasing roster flexibility. These issues are real, but hardly devastating. Almost any player is going to face a pitcher in crucial situations meant to exploit platoon issues. It mights be worse for platoon players, but it is not unique, and hardly mitigates the other advantages.
The damage to roster flexibility can also be overstated. For one thing, there is the general savings of paying less for roughly average production from two players. In the specific case of Cleveland, it is not as big a deal because the Cleveland outfield already has built-in flexibility. Left fielder Michael Brantley may not be the second coming of Devon White when he moves to center field, but he can fill in there if needed, as he did when Michael Bourn was injured during 2013. If something like happens again, Murphy and Raburn can play the corners. Yes, that would take away the platoon advantage, but any team is going to suffer similar issues if an injury to a starter occurs. Murphy can also play center if it comes to that, even if he is not brilliant out there. The general point is that the flexibility issue is not particularly germane to Cleveland’s specific situation.
Murphy’s signing with Cleveland also has some other ripple effects for the team. It probably means the end of Drew Stubbs‘ time with the team, but Stubbs’ surprisingly good 2010 season is a long time ago. He has been dreadful since then, and although he should latch on with some other team, he really serves no purpose in Cleveland any more, so that is no great loss.
Murphy’s contract also probably confirms first base as Nick Swisher‘s long-term position. Swisher did play about 200 innings in right for Cleveland in 2013, but with both Murphy and Raburn signed to do the job, Swisher’s main fielding job for the next few years (i.e., the rest of his contract) appears to be first base. Playing first does lower Swisher’s value a bit. Steamer expects him to rebound after his down 2013, but .255/.352/.445 (125 wRC+) is not all that great from a first baseman. Still, these days it is not bad from a first baseman. Swisher would still be at least an average overall player at first base with those numbers. He is guaranteed $45 million over the next three years, and with the price of wins being what it seems to be, that is not all that bad.
Cleveland had a number of things go right for them on their way to the 2013 playoffs. The Tigers are still the class of the Central, and the Royals have enough young talent that they should not be written off. Still, with Chicago and Minnesota are in the throes of big rebuilding projects and the Royals having plenty of issues of their own, Cleveland does have a shot to replicate something like its 2013 success. By signing Murphy and putting him in a platoon with Raburn, they fill one of the main holes in their 2014 offense. They still need to add some pitching, which might be difficult. It might be a bit easier with the projected savings from this platoon.
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