International Free Agent Profile 2014: Matt Murton

Jonathan Daniel

The man who set the NPB hitting record is likely to return Stateside in 2014. Would he be a worthwhile addition to the New York Mets?

Matt Murton was born in the baseball city of Fort Lauderdale on October 3, 1981. As a child, he became involved in Little League baseball, and by the time he was a teenager in McDonough, Georgia, Murton was good enough to make the Eagle's Landing High School baseball team.

There, he set a plethora of school records: career batting average (.405), home runs (24), hits (143), doubles (24), triples (9), walks (68), RBI (122), runs scored (125), and stolen bases (32). Deciding against the MLB Draft out of high school, the teen was accepted to Georgia Tech. As a freshman in 2001, he earned Freshman All-America honors from Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, hitting .385/.444/.615 in 47 games with the Yellow Jackets. He also played ball in the Cape Cod League that summer, where he was named league MVP and selected by Baseball America as the league's third best prospect that summer. He was just as good as a sophomore, hitting .344/.434/.536 in 64 games, making him an all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection for the second year in a row.

After logging two years in college, the Boston Red Sox selected Murton in the first supplemental round of the 2003 draft, picking him with the 32nd overall pick. The youngster signed with Boston for roughly $1 million, and his professional career began immediately. The Red Sox assigned the prospect to the Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League (Short-A) for the remainder of the 2003 season, and the outfielder responded, hitting .286/.374/.397 in 53 games.

Because of his performance, Baseball America named him Boston's fifth-best prospect going into the 2004 season. The 22-year-old spent most of his 2004 season with the Sarasota Red Sox of the Florida State League (High-A). He played 102 games with them and hit a robust .301/.372/.452. At the 2004 trade deadline, he was packaged along with Nomar Garciaparra in a blockbuster four-team, eight-player trade involving the Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Montreal Expos, and Chicago Cubs.

Now a Daytona Cub, Murton finished the season hitting .253/.326/.367 in his last 24 games, giving him a .292/.364/.437 batting line for the year. Along the way, he was a Florida State League All-Star, Florida State League Postseason All-Star, and the Florida State League Home Run Derby champion. Baseball America rated the outfielder as having the best strike zone discipline and being the best hitter for average in the Cubs' farm system, and graded him as the Cubs' eleventh-best prospect.

Murton started the 2005 season with the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx of the Southern League (Double-A) and hit .342/.403/.498 for them over 78 games. He spent a handful of games in Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs, but Chicago quickly promoted him to its MLB roster, where he made his season debut on July 8th, exactly two years after he signed with the Red Sox.

The rookie impressed in his debut, going 2-for-4 with a double. He finished out the rest of the year hitting .321/.386/.521 over 51 games and was named the Cubs' starting left fielder for 2006. He made the most of the opportunity handed to him by Chicago and rewarded the club by hitting .297/.365/.444 in 144 games. Still, the team saw the chance to upgrade and signed former Met Cliff Floyd, replaced Murton in left field. Murton saw his playing time decrease but still made the most of what he had, hitting .281/.352/.438 in 94 games.

Murton didn't fare too well with the Cubs in 2008, though, hitting .250/.286/.300 in 19 games. Down in the Pacific Coast League with the Iowa Cubs, he hit a little better, slashing .298/.397/.382 in 54 games. The Cubs traded Murton mid-season along with Josh Donaldson, Sean Gallagher and Eric Patterson to the Oakland Athletics for Chad Gaudin and Rich Harden.

The 26-year-old saw no real change in his production or playing time. With the A's, he hit .100/.129/.133 in 31 plate appearances, but with the Sacramento River Cats, Oakland's Triple-A affiliate, Murton hit .277/.345/.423 in 32 games. Billy Beane flipped Murton for Colorado farmhand Corey Wimberly in February. He fared marginally better there in 2009, hitting .250/.304/.404 in 56 plate appearances with the Rockies and .324/.389/.499 with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, but he continued the "Quad-A Player" trend, neither getting much playing time nor producing in the limited time he was afforded while putting up acceptable numbers in Triple-A. That December, the Rockies released Murton, making him a 27-year-old marginal outfielder without a team.

The Hanshin Tigers saw through Murton's lack of success in 2008 and 2009 and saw the makings of a player who they believed would be a fit on their team. They signed the outfielder to a two-year, ¥100 million deal, worth roughly $1.1 million in 2009. Through seeing something inside Murton that no one else saw, or through sheer luck, that investment paid massive dividends. The 28-year-old played in all 144 games and obliterated Central League pitching, hitting .349/.395/.499 and notching 214 hits, the new standing record in Japan. Only four other players in NPB history finished a season with 200 or more hits: Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Alex Ramirez.

The team brought Murton back for 2010, and though he wasn't as good as he was in 2010, he certainly didn't disappoint, hitting .311/.339/.423. The Tigers signed Murton to an extension to cover his 2012 and 2013 seasons. A clause in was inserted into his contract that states that if he does not sign with the Hanshin Tigers in 2014, he is barred from playing for any other team in Japan for the 2014 season, a perfidiously ingenious clause on Hanshin's part to ensure rivals wouldn't doubly benefit from his departure from Hanshin and his addition to their team.

Murton was limited to 121 games in 2012 because he was removed from the active roster in mid-August because of a disagreement with coach Koichi Sekikawa that led to an argument that turned into a fight where the two men had to be physically separated to prevent things from escalating. He did make two consecutive errors in a game against the Yakult Swallows and was removed from the game immediately after, but certainly his own malaise at the plate had something to do with his uncharacteristic lashing out.

On the year, Murton hit a disappointing .260/.290/.342 and despite what he accomplished in 2010 and 2011, was hearing plenty of abuse from fans, players, and coaches. When he returned to Japan for the 2013 season, he reportedly overhauled his swing, and during training camps before the 2013 season, Murton supposedly tinkered with his swing and his stance to more closely mirror video from his 2010 season. The work paid off, as the 32-year-old returned to form, notching 178 hits in 143 games, hitting .314/.361/.484 on the year.

It should be noted that his BABIP in his two best seasons was ridiculously high. In his record-setting 2010 season, he was able to maintain a .371 BABIP, as compared to the league average of .296. In 2013, he was able to maintain a .388 BABIP, as compared to the league average of .282. The newer standardized Mizuno baseball was introduced in 2011 and used in 2012, before being secretly replaced in 2013 intermittently. This also might have something to do with his elevated BABIP—and overall better performances in 2010 and 2013—as opposed to 2011 and 2012.

His MLB stats are as follows:

Year Age G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2009 27 29 56 .250 .304 .404 1 4 14 2/2

His MiLB stats are as follows:

Year Age G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2009 27 97 424 .324 .389 .499 12 39 52 12/14

His NPB stats are as follows:

Year Age G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2010 28 144 668 .349 .395 .499 17 47 70 11/17
2011 29 142 606 .311 .339 .423 13 24 76 6/10
2012 30 121 473 .260 .290 .342 5 18 56 2/6
2013 31 143 613 .314 .363 .487 19 42 81 6/7

Does He Make Sense For The Mets?

Once upon a time, Murton was seen as an everyday outfielder. After an impressive showing in 2005, Murton served as the Cubs' starting left fielder in 2006 and a fourth outfielder that got into 94 games and saw 162 plate appearances in 2007. Over that span, he hit .291/.361/.442 in 769 plate appearances, good for a 103 OPS+. After being signed by the Hanshin Tigers in 2010, Murton served as a starter for his entire four-year tenure with the club, playing fewer than 140 games only once, in 2012. So, he certainly has the durability and the ability to be a starter.

The next question is, can he cut it in MLB? We know he once did, to a degree. He excelled in 2005, 2006, and 2007 before a combination of his own struggles and team upgrades left him with less and less playing time. Since going to Japan and getting more playing time in a competitive environment, he has only gotten better.

NPB baseball is seen as being a few shades below MLB baseball in terms of competition level, but notching 200 hits is impressive in any league. Murton has suggested interest in returning to the United States to play baseball, but is also open to returning to Hanshin for another season if he does not receive any MLB offers that he deems acceptable.

Murton told Daily Sports, "I do not know what will happen next year...I had a good season. At this age, I am not sure how many more good years I have left in me. I will play whereever I am taken. ... Being able to play in the US, where I grew up, would be anyone's dream. I feel I can do a lot better now, than before I came to Japan...I do have an interest in playing in the US, but Japan has also been a second home to me."

So, what would be an offer that Murton might find good enough to leave Hanshin and return to the U.S.? The Tigers are supposedly planning to offer the outfielder a large, multi-year deal, but at the same time, they are adamant that they have a budget window to operate within that they cannot go over. Of course, "large" and "multi-year" in Japan are very different there than they are here in the U.S. Even the best talents there make relative pennies as compared to the best talents here.

Shinnosuke Abe, the top hitter in Japan, made ¥570 million in 2013 and Toshiya Sugiuchi, the one of the top pitchers in Japan, made ¥500 million . Converted into dollars, that comes out to $5.8 and $5.1 million, respectively, and both players play for the Yomiuri Giants, a team for which money is no object. There is an unwritten rule among teams that ¥500 million is the most that any player should make, and for the most part, it has held up. Only Abe, Sugiuchi, Ichiro Suzuki, Kaz Sazaki, Hideki Matsui, Kenji Johjima, Yu Darvish, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, and Tomoako Kanemoto have surpassed the ¥500 million plateau.

The outfielder made ¥246 million in 2013 in the second year of a two-year contract signed in 2012, which comes out to about $2.5 million. The Hanshin Tigers are among Japan's more rich teams, so offering Murton a pay raise is certainly within their capability, raising his 2014 salary from $2.5 million into the $3 million range. Contracts in Japan are, like salaries, very conservative and favor the teams. Sung-Min Cho holds the record for the longest guaranteed contract, an eight-year deal with the Giants from 1996-2003. Nobuhiko Matsunaka, in addition to being among the highest salaried players in Japan today, is also the active player with the longest contract in NPB history, a seven-year deal that kept him a Fukuoka SoftBank Hawk from 2006 until 2013. When Hanshin says "long term," it most likely means a three-year deal.

So, would you be willing to offer Murton a contract along those lines, a multi-year deal that sees him being paid somewhere around $3 million per year? The 32-year-old outfielder might be willing to take a discount in terms of money or contractual length to return home, but given he would be guaranteed a starting position with Hanshin—should they choose to offer Murton a contract— he might value playing time over money.

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