When the Alex Rodriguez verdict was finally handed down and it was announced that he would lose out on the entire 2014 season and his 25 million dollar salary, Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office first collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Then one question became apparent: “okay, what now?” Because while they are certainly thankful not have to spend 25 million on a 38 year old, slightly above average head case, the Yankees now have a giant hole at the hot corner.
Sure, they could put the recently signed Kelly Johnson there, but that would mean having to start Brendan Ryan and his .197 average at second. Ryan’s superb fielding may have let him get by as a shortstop, but at second, he won’t be able to provide enough defensive value to compensate for his feeble approach at the plate. Not that Johnson is an offensive juggernaut, either; he consistently struggles to gets on base a .300 clip and while he has modest power, he’s not good for much more than 16 or so home runs per season. More importantly, Johnson can play almost every position on the diamond, and therefore his value is maximized when in a utility role. Eduardo Nunez could also play third, but with a negative career WAR and a .692 OPS after three MLB seasons, he’s proven to be little more than a run of the mill backup infielder.
Assuming the Yankees stay in house – and considering the paucity of free agent third basemen, this is very likely – an intriguing option could be minor league catcher J.R. Murphy. Murphy, who had a brief and uneventful major league stint last September, was recently ranked by Baseball America as the fourth best prospect in the Yankees system. He’s a more than capable receiver behind the plate, but since he is blocked there by Brian McCann in the short term, and by fellow prospect Gary Sanchez in the long term, it should make sense to move Murphy over to third, where he played sporadically in the minors.
Although his career .738 minor league OPS and .266 minor league average might not show it, the 22 year old’s bat is his primary weapon. He has always been projected to hit for moderate power and that began to show up in 2013, when he hit 12 home runs between AA Trenton and AAA Wilkes-Barre, both pitching-friendly ballparks. The combination of a slightly above average – 10% – walk rate and a relatively low – 18% – strikeout rate should allow him to get on base at a rate fairly consistent with his .347 OBP from last year. If Murphy continues to add the power scouts have always promised and showcases it during spring training, he should be given serious consideration for the starting job at third base.
If he doesn’t – and it’s quite possible that he still needs more time to develp – then he could still be a very effective platoon player, spelling the left handed Kelly Johnson. With a career OPS of .817 against lefthanders, as opposed to .714 against righthanders, Murphy is clearly a much better hitter against southpaws. Just last year in Wilkes Berre, he posted a 1.075 OPS against lefthanders, although at 61 plate appearances, the sample size was admittedly quite small. The yankees could indeed form a similar platoon between Johnson and the right handed Brendan Ryan or Eduardo Nunez, but Murphy offers far greater upside than what appear to be relatively established and insipid products. If all goes well, he could offer some of that right-handed power New York desperately needs.
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