As January keeps rolling along, the 2021 MLB Free Agents market remains somewhat unclear. There have been some big trades made and some of the big names have already found homes, like DJ LeMahieu and Liam Hendriks, but the vast majority of the big fish remain out there for every willing owner to sign. And in this offseason where seemingly every team is penny-pinching, there might be some free agent signings who could fill some holes and possibly give you some upside for cheap. Enter Daniel Murphy.
Murphy is a familiar name for baseball fans. The 35-year-old is a former three-time All-Star, and his prime included a 2016 season in which he finished as the runner-up to Kris Bryant for NL MVP. He signed a now much-maligned two year, $24M contract with the Colorado Rockies after the 2018 season, and let’s just say it didn’t work out. Murphy slashed just .269/.316/.426 in those two years and the Rockies saw enough to decline his $12M mutual option after a disappointing 2020, so the lefty finds himself in the 2021 MLB free agents class looking for work. Can he still provide value? And who could use him? Let’s answer those questions, shall we?
2021 MLB Free Agents: Player Profile
At this point in his career, Daniel Murphy is what he is. He’s not a second baseman anymore, and he won’t exactly be Paul Goldschmidt at first base either. If a team thinks Murphy can still contribute, it’ll be because they think his bat still has some juice left. His ability to make contact is still there, at least, as Murphy has never dipped below the 94th percentile in Baseball Savant’s whiff% stat since its introduction in 2015. He’s still capable of putting the bat on the ball with the best of them.
His weak 2019 can be attributed in some measure to a hand injury he played through after getting hurt in the very first series of that year against Miami. And more good news: during the first three weeks or so of the shortened 2020 season, Murphy slashed .333/.365/.517 for a strong 121 wRC+. The bad news is that strong stretch was aided by a lucky .395 BABIP and take it from someone who watched those games, there were a lot of groundballs that barely sneaked past infielders in that time frame.
The even worse news is Murphy slashed .143/.191/.159 from August 16th onwards. That was good for a -30 wRC+. Not a typo. Negative 30, especially for a guy going into the 2021 MLB free agents class as a veteran replacement-level ballplayer with major defensive issues.
Even if you buy into his good stretches and dismiss the poor ones, there’s obvious evidence that the MVP-caliber Murphy from 2016 is no more. He’s simply not hitting the ball as hard and his overall quality of contact has decreased significantly in the past three years. However, there still may be enough there for some team lacking depth to consider giving him a shot, particularly since he’s unlikely to be expensive. In fact, I’d bet on him getting nothing but Minor League contract offers at this point because that defensively limited bat first profile is out there in abundance for many franchises.
So he’s a cheap veteran first baseman/designated hitter only type with some potential bounceback in the bat and little risk involved. Which teams could be good fits? Let’s take a look.
Cleveland Baseball Team
Cleveland is in a weird place. After trading away Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, the team seems to have officially shut its contention window down for the time being, and there are a lot of holes in that lineup. Cleveland also declined Carlos Santana‘s $17.5M option for 2021, leaving them with a relatively open spot at first base, and they did say they would invest the savings from the big trade with the Mets back into the payroll. Why not dive into the 2021 MLB free agents and look for a cheap left-handed first baseman?
It also helps my point how disinterested they seemed in giving prospect Bobby Bradley a shot to claim first base for himself in 2020. They might as well make some small additions to enhance the position, and Murphy somewhat fits the bill. He’ll be cheap, which Cleveland likes, and he can be the designated hitter here and there as well if the team is comfortable with Franmil Reyes playing in an outfield corner.
I included the Marlins in this list mainly because both of their projected first basemen, Garrett Cooper and Jesus Aguilar, bat right-handed. The Marlins are on a steady rise towards being a respectable franchise again but they still have a few holes. Adding a lefty to give Cooper and Aguilar a few days off against righties makes sense to me, and he could get additional use as a pinch hitter.
In any case, it would be on a short deal to make sure Murphy would never block potential prospects at the position, namely Lewin Diaz. I don’t think the Marlins would let that happen, but big league managers love their veterans, so better safe than sorry.
Yes, I know the switch-hitting Jeimer Candelario is likely to be their everyday first baseman moving forward, and I know Miguel Cabrera is going to get playing time until he can no longer walk. And there’s that Spencer Torkelson guy. I still believe Murphy has a shot to be useful for the Tigers in 2021 as a spot starter against righties every once in a while, either at first base or as the designated hitter. Why? Mainly because Candelario hits much better against lefties and he has a career 118 wRC+ facing left-handed pitching compared to a career 88 wRC+ against righties.
If the Tigers want to let Candelario figure it out against righties and wait until Torkelson is in the Show, I would be perfectly okay with it. But if they want to hide Candelario a bit more and if they think Torkelson can play third base, I’d give Murphy a shot on a Minor League deal. Detroit is still years away from serious contention anyway so looking for stopgaps where necessary should be a thing they do, and the 2021 MLB Free Agents class is the perfect place to look.
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