Now that the Daniel Murphy outfield experiment has ended, it's time to assess his long-term viability at first base. This seems like the only position Mets decision makers think he can play. I'd like to see him try second base in the minor leagues for an extended period, but with Luis Castillo entrenched there through 2011 and a general reluctance by the organization to take chances like that, it's hardly worth considering. Can Murphy hack it as a full-time major league first baseman?
Murphy's small sample size dominance at the big league level last season is well documented. His OPS was an excellent .871, aided by an unsustainably high line-drive % and BABIP. Despite the nonstop offseason hype, it's overly optimistic to think he can maintain this performance. Dave Szymborski's in-season ZiPS projection at FanGraphs thinks Murphy will finish the season with a .743 OPS. Compare this to the average National League first baseman over the last few seasons:
|Year||Average OPS - NL 1B|
An OPS in the .700's would be far below average for the position. In fact, Murphy's ZiPS-projected OPS is below league average, regardless of position. That's not something you want from your first baseman, the position at the bottom of the positional adjustment hierarchy. Murphy's best minor league season saw him go .308/.374/.496/.870 at the AA level. He'd have to come a lot closer to that type of production if he is to be a full-time first baseman. That is, unless his defensive contributions are substantial enough to compensate for his offensive shortcomings.
We don't really have much evidence to come to a verdict about Murphy's defense. I consulted Minor League Splits to find his TotalZone at first base, but the sample is too small to draw any conclusions. What we do know is that Murphy's footwork is less then polished, no matter where he's played. He's displayed some solid quickness, demonstrated by above average range according to UZR. On Wednesday against the Dodgers, he looked good overall despite some shaky footwork in the first inning.
In general, a first baseman has to mash in order to have value. There are exceptions of course. Casey Kotchman of the Braves is not a great hitter, but his defense has made him a league average performer in recent years. Lyle Overbay of the Blue Jays is a similar player. Barring Albert Pujols-esque defense, Murphy is going to have to improve his hitting if he is to be seriously considered as the Mets first baseman of the future. With Carlos Delgado sidelined through August he should get his shot, and we'll get a chance to see if "Daniel Murphy means business" translates to "Daniel Murphy slugs .450."