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January 2012

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Chet's Corner: The Curious Case of Matt Murton

Written by , Posted in General

What if I told you, in the summer of 2006, the Cubs had a left fielder who was all of 24 years old and hit .297 with an .809 OPS in 144 games.  In 508 plate appearances he hit 13 HR’s and managed 62 RBI’s.   Oh, and by the way, he only committed 3 errors along the way.  Mind you, this is his first full big league season.

What if I told you, that in 2010, while playing with the Hanshin Tigers, this same player would break a Japanese League single season hits record held by Ichiro set in 1994.

What if I told you that player was none other than Matt Murton?

Murton came to the Cubs via the Boston Red Sox.  To be more specific, he was the “throw in” player included with Nomar Garciaparra in a huge four team/seven player deal.  He was a first round draft pick by the Red Sox in 2003 after his college days at Georgia Tech.

In 2005 he made his debut with the Cubs.  In 51 games and 160 plates appearances he hit .321 and knocked 7 dingers.  He had a .908 OPS in that short period of time.

One thing I will remember about Murton, besides his red hair, was his eye at the plate.  He never seemed to swing at a bad pitch, and he worked counts and usually made contact.  His walk and strikeout numbers are nothing to write home about but nothing to scoff at either..  He walked 10 percent of the time and struck out 10 percent of the time.

In  2006,  Murton’s WAR was 2.1 ….third highest on the team behind Juan Pierre and Aramis Ramirez.  The difference is Juan Pierre was making close to 6 million and Aramis Ramirez was pulling down almost 11 million, while Matt Murton was paid $337,000.

Matt was in the Cubs top 4 in almost every offensive category for the 2006 season.  He was second in Batting Average and OBP!!!!

Then came 2007 and Alfonso Soriano…..

In a blink Matt Murton was relegated to utility/part-time outfielder and even sent down to AAA Iowa a few times.  Over the course of 92 major league games and about half the plate appearances as 2006, Murton bounced between left field, right field, and center field in spot duty roles.  His average stayed strong at .281 and his OBP nudged down slightly to .352. Even his batting average at Iowa in 172 plate appearances was .324.

In 2008, with only 42 plate appearances under his belt for the Cubs,  he was traded to the Oakland Athletics.  Packaged with three other prospects (Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher, and Josh Donaldson) in a trade that brought the fragile Rich Harden and the under achieving reliever Chad Gaudin.

Murton saw very little action with the A’s.  After a handful of plate appearances and a stint with the A’s AAA affiliate, the end of 2008 came and he was traded off to Colorado for a minor leaguer in the off-season.  Colorado was a similar experience.

The real crux of the situation came after the 2009 season as he ran out of options and was arbitration eligible.  With a hefty raise coming there were no teams that wanted to invest in a 27 year old outfielder who hit for contact with average power.  His only option at playing everyday at a higher* level then the minors was Japan.

* Murton has even been quoted as saying Japan is like AAAA ball.  The big difference from AAA being 55,000 screaming fans vs. a couple thousand.          

While many would say Matt Murton was just a casualty of the Soriano signing and a crowded outfield, or maybe they feel he just wasn’t that good and all those stats are misleading, I feel there was more at work here.

In this humble writer’s opinion, an investment in Matt Murton was lacking.  As a matter of fact, the only people who ever really invested in Matt Murton were the Red Sox, drafting him with a first round pick.  However, the Red Sox had bigger fish to fry when they found the need to part ways with Nomar Garciaparra, who had worn out his welcome in Beantown.  Murton was merely the prospect that evened out the deal for the Cubs at the time, and allowed the Red Sox to rake in four new prospects and rid themselves of a bad situation with Nomar. 

If Corey Patterson, Felix Pie, or even Tyler Colvin had a season as productive as Murton’s rookie year, Jim Hendry would  have raised a banner in tribute the following season over the Wrigley Marquee.  However, there was no previous financial investment made for Murton, other then a league minimum salary.  There was no first round pick to hang the scouting departments hat on.  He was just a “throw in” to a bigger deal.  A kicker to make the sting of a handful of prospects in exchange for an aging veteran shortstop go away. 

The minor leagues are littered with guys who could be playing at the major league level and succeeding.  However, unless they have astronomic numbers, without a commitment and some investment from their organization, they may never see the big league club.  This holds true to a greater extent when they are blocked by somebody, either through a larger monetary investment or just time in the organization,  even if that somebody has shown less production. 

It is situations like Murton’s that make me scratch my head.  How do the Aaron Miles and Koyie Hill’s survive in the league and Murton can’t even get a fair shake….or he gets one and proves himself, yet is forgotten???!!!   

I firmly believe that if Murton was one of Jim’s guys, drafted in the first round and given a size-able signing bonus, touted by the big league club as somebody to watch and brought up through the system, he would still be playing in a Cub uniform today.

  • I’m interested to see the debate this sparks

  • Norm

    People say Murton sucked defensively because when he did make a bad play, it looked REALLY bad. Much the opposite of Jeter, who isn’t a good defensive player, but he makes pretty jump-throws and gets gold gloves because of it. And Murton was slow, which made him look worse.
    He was an average player where people focused more on what he couldn’t do rather than what he could do.

  • MJ

    It’s the old argument, of you can’t get an error if you’re not in the same zip code of the ball in play. I liked the big redhead, but never thought he was going to suceed. As a big league corner outfielder. He needed to develop power, and even in Japan, he hasn’t shown that. When Murton misplayed balls, he really misplayed stuff.
    .
    Unfortunately, Hendry was in a tough spot with ownership and fans wanting a big splash in free agency and to turn the club around. Soriano was the best available, and the Trib told him to spend the money.

  • Noah

    I’d say this: if Matt Murton was on the Cubs in 2012, odds are fairly high he’d post the highest OPS of any outfielder the Cubs have. Soriano’s OBP might never see .300 again, so it will be very difficult for him to post an OPS above .800. Byrd hits well enough for a CF, but doesn’t hit for either enough power or get on base enough to predict an .800 OPS. DeJesus would have the most reasonable shot at it, since he’s posted an OPS above .800 in 4 of the last 7 seasons. Now, Murton wouldn’t have posted anywhere near Soriano’s 2007 and 2008 numbers, so there is a question regarding if the Cubs would have made the playoffs either of those years if you switched Soriano and Murton. And Murton might not be all around as valuable as Byrd, who plays a slightly above average defensive center field, and DeJesus, an excellent corner defensive outfielder. But he’d have good odds of being the best of that group at the plate in 2012.

  • chet

    I wonder who would have been better overall, Fukudome for a full season or Murton? factor in the money….

  • chuck

    I liked the “investment” angle of the talk about Murton and why he was never really given a shot. This is why I would view all players contracts as sunk costs the moment they sign on the dotted line. From that point on, the only thing that should matter is winning games and putting the best lineup on the field to accomplish that. Should it matter, from a winning games perspective, that Player A is making $18M vs Player B who is making $400k when Player B is a better player? No. But it does matter to the GM who signed Player A because he could get fired if sitting Player A helps the team win because Player B is better.
    The league is littered with players who should be in a lesser role, but, because of their salary, the GM and manager feel compelled to play them. Barry Zito is probably the best example of this. This is probably true of every major US sport.
    I think Murton was caught up in a perfect storm of variables that kept him from reaching his full potential in MLB.
    1-The wrong coach. Dusty is not exactly “new school” in valuing walks and patience at the plate.
    2-The wrong team. The Cubs have never been an organization (maybe until now) that valued walks, plate discipline, working counts, etc… Wrigley has been considered a hitters park for a long time so they valued players who hit a lot of HR. That was not is Murton’s tool box.
    3-No investment. See article.
    4-Once you hit the majors you have a limited time to make an impact or else you slide through the cracks. Murton had a job then he lost it for no good reason. All other teams saw was that he lost his job for some reason. Other GMs did not want to take a chance on a guy who did not have the established track record. Murton had spotty playing time for a few years prior to leaving the Cubs and his numbers reflect that. It is hard to establish a rythem when your spot in the lineup was constantly being jerked around.

  • chuck

    Fukudome is another underrated guy who does not do a lot of flashy things but he works counts, gets on base, plays pretty good D and has some speed. It is valuable as a secondary player but is not a star.

  • MJ

    Fukudome will only be remembered for his corkcrew swing on strike threes.

  • Norm

    Joe had “diaries” on this site many moons ago and I had one about Fukudome when he was signed, and said the Cubs were paying $11M a year for a left handed, better defensive version of Murton…
    I think I was right, but I also said the Cubs should have spend that money on a REAL shortstop like Edgar Renteria…so I guess that evens things out since Renteria was terrible.

  • Jedi

    The best outfielder on a really crappy team – hooray. There is no MLB team that wants to give Murton an MLB deal and there hasn’t been for 2+ years now; he sucked in Oakland; he sucked more in Colorado and was even sent back to their AAA team. At his “best” in 2006 he had an OPS+ of 104. Some serious revisionist history from looking at numbers on a page here.

  • Jedi

    Also when the best you can say is “I was better than Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones” it’s probably best not to say anything.

  • Buddy

    For whatever reason, I always kind of liked Murton.

  • BLPCB

    In 2006 and 07, I liked Murton a lot that I said Adam Dunn is the only player I would trade him for.

  • Noah

    I think we discussed this a couple of weeks ago, but I disagree that there isn’t a team that would be willing to give Murton an MLB deal. What I’ve heard on my travels through the internets is that there isn’t a team that would be willing to give Murton a guaranteed starting job, and he’d be paid commensurately with other backup outfielders who can’t play CF would be paid. So his option is taking a 1 year deal for a max of about $1 million to potentially barely get any playing time, or to stay in Japan where he’s a star. Unless Murton really has the need to prove something in MLB for his psyche, that’s a pretty easy choice from his perspective as far as pay, playing time and job security go.

  • Jedi

    And as I said before Noah – just who in their right mind is giving a AAA player from 2 years ago a guaranteed MLB contract. Ryan Spilborghs – aka, the reason Murton was relegated to AAA in Colorado – can’t get a contract right now. Conor Jackson, Austin Kearns can’t. Felix Pie, Brett Carroll, Eric Patterson, Ryan Langerhans – all minor league deals. Brad Hawpe is about to get a minor league deal. But somehow Murton would get an MLB one? Not likely.

    Murton has even said as much, the biggest reason he doesn’t want to come back is because at best he’d be competing for a roster spot with incredibly minimal at-bats (i.e., not a guaranteed roster spot) – and if he was relegated to the minors again (very likely) he’d be competing for playing time with much younger guys (the Jason Dubois role). He doesn’t want to come back because no one wants him on their 25-man roster bad enough to guarantee it.

  • Buddy

    If Juan “out machine” Pierre can still get a Major League job, so can Matt Murton.

  • Doc Raker

    Great job on this Chet. It is hard to know why the Cubs didn’t keep Murton around but the ‘investment’ angle is very possible. I think the investment angle is more prominent in front office decisions than we will ever know and I thank you for bringing it to our attention in this possible scenario. Matt Murton was a solid hitter, a bit of a ground ball machine but a very sound fundamental hitter. He lacked 30+ power which is what corner outfielders need. Had Murton been a 2b man he would still be in the league making millions. I think Murton’s outfield position didn’t match the type of hitter he was and that may have something to do with his short stints in the bigs. I remember how the baseball people talked about changing his swing plane to help him drive the ball into the air in hope of more power. Lack f investment plus lack of power was Mur

  • Doc Raker

    Lack of investment and lack of power was Murton’s big league demise. Moral- teach your kids how to play middle infield in case they grow up to have no power.

  • BLPCB

    What a stupid reason to get rid of him. Power cn be acquired as his career progresses.

  • Jedi

    Pierre, for all his faults, has an elite skill (speed). Murton didn’t have a single elite skill. Plus Pierre had earned a big contract that meant he wouldn’t get released or sent to Japan. It’s better to be great at one thing than mediocre at everything.

  • Doc Raker

    True Jedi, being elite at one skill makes you a better fit for 1 particular position.

  • Dusty Baylor

    Murton in LF 2006-2011 at a much cheaper cost than Soriano?
    Even if he didn’t develop much more, if he put up .285/.360/.440 with 15 HR and 70 RBI…at least the Cubs wouldn’t be hamstrung with that horrible deal. Eh….I suppose it doesn’t matter anyway…..
    Sori was good in 2007.

  • cap’n obvious

    I’d have to say Murton should be considered an elite contact hitter by now. He might not have been in ’08, but clearly the guy can hit. The Japanese professional league might lack flamethrowers night in and night out, but they know how to pitch over there, and Murton has been a raker over there. Not a raker with a phoropter and a buncha crappy glasses for sale…but a real hitter.