With the Nationals under .500 and their playoff hopes growing slimmer, the club decided to put a few pending free agents on waivers. One of the more prominent names is that of Daniel Murphy, who is headed to the Cubs. The deal was first reported as close by Craig Mish and then confirmed shortly thereafter by multiple sources. Jon Heyman came through with the return, so here’s the deal:
- Daniel Murphy
- Andruw Monasterio
- Cash or PTBNL
The trade is an interesting one for several reasons. First, because the Cubs were the team to claim him and trade for him, that means that every other team in the National League passed on Murphy. The 33-year-old lefty was in the final year of his three-year, $36 million contract that pays him $17.5 million this season with $5 million deferred to the following two years. That means Murphy is owed about $4 million for the rest of the season. The money, plus a lack of need at Murphy’s position of second base, likely caused other contenders to pass and land in the lap of the team with the best record in the National League.
Murphy missed the first few months of the season with knee surgery then struggled out of the gate with a .194/.231/.264 line. The result was a pitiful 30 wRC+ in his first 78 plate appearances. Since July 9, however, Murphy has resembled his former self, with a .364/.409/.551 line with a 156 wRC+ in 127 plate appearances. Overall, his 108 wRC+ plus poor defense and baserunning — he’s been one of the slowest runners in baseball this year — has made Murphy a roughly replacement-level player. That performance is hurt by his rough start, however, as he’s been around 20% better than average or better in every 10-game stretch since early July.
His projections say he’ll remain about 20% better than average as a hitter going forward. He’s still the same contact hitter he always has been, with a strikeout rate under 10% on the year. His power is down a little bit, but it has been improving over the course of the year. At a minimum, Murphy provides an excellent bench bat and is a potential starter at second and first base. How he fits in precisely with the Cubs is a bit of a mystery. Murphy’s principal position is second base, and the Cubs already have two good second basemen in Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist.
Assuming Murphy will get something close to everyday playing time, the player most directly affected is Baez as the near-everyday second baseman. Baez is going to play everyday somewhere, and the obvious choices are shortstop or third base. At third base, Baez provides some insurance in case Kris Bryant’s recovery is slowed. Recall that the D-backs traded for Eduardo Escobar while Jake Lamb was on the disabled list and working his way back from injury, and almost immediately after the trade, the team announced that Lamb was out for the season. Bryant was scheduled to face live pitching for the first time in nearly a month today. If Bryant isn’t progressing nearly as well as hoped or has a setback, Baez could move over to third base if there are concerns about David Bote handling the full-time role at third base.
Alternatively, Baez could also slide over to shortstop and take playing time from 24-year-old Addison Russell. The Cubs’ current shortstop has played all season and has continued to perform well defensively, but offensively he remains below average. He’s missed time on three different occasions this season due to problems with a finger on his left hand and has just a 37 wRC+ since the All-Star break. If there are lingering concerns over Russell’s injury or his performance on offense in general, the Cubs could improve their lackluster offense — they’ve recorded a 90 wRC+ since the All-Star break and their .136 ISO during that time is ahead of only the Tigers, Marlins, and Giants — by putting Murphy’s bat in the lineup and removing Russell.
Adding Murphy and removing Russell could have a negative impact on the defense and pitching, so there is some risk with the change. Murphy is a below-average second baseman, while Baez is above average there. Russell, meanwhile, is a good-fielding shortstop and Baez is closer to average at that position. The Cubs’ BABIP on ground balls this season is fifth-best in baseball at .215, and Baez at second base and Russell at shortstop likely represent a big part of that hit suppression. Murphy’s bat getting the Cubs’ offense going might be worth the trade-off, but a few more grounders would likely get through.
The cost in prospects was not high. In addition to examining Monasterio in today’s Daily Prospect Notes, Eric Longhenhagen put Monasterio in a group with several other prospects before the season. He wrote:
[They] are all a skinny 5-foot-10 or so and athletic enough to play all over the infield. None of them is likely to hit enough to play everyday, nor play such great defense at shortstop that you don’t care. But one of them might, and if you gather enough of these guys, eventually it will become likely that one of them does. I think this strategy of talent acquisition and development is underrated.
Monasterio is a 21-year-old splitting time between shortstop and second base in High-A, where he has held his own with an average batting line. Ultimately, the Cubs added another good player for the stretch run, and you can’t have enough good players. Murphy represents insurance in case of injuries and underperformance and deepens the Cubs’ bench, whether it’s Murphy who’s on it or whomever he’s displaced. It’s somewhat surprising no other team claimed Murphy, but the money and lack of fit probably scared other teams off. The Cubs stand to gain in what could be a very tight playoff race, and potentially the postseason, where Murphy could once again play hero.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.