By Brad Kallet
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In October of 2015, a slightly above-average player named Daniel Murphy etched his name into Mets lore — and baseball lore, for that matter — when he belted eight home runs in 14 games during New York’s run to the World Series.
It was one of the greatest performances in postseason history.
Murphy was a bit of an enigma in his seven years with the Mets, from 2008-15. A poor fielder, dreadful baserunner and solid hitter, he had the makings of a batting champion but the instincts that could lose you a game. After his historic display in the 2015 Division Series and NLCS, and after SNY play-by-play man Gary Cohen called him a “net negative,” Murphy somehow found himself without a job.
How could a man who just dominated on the biggest stage in the sport not garner interest on the open market? Mets general manager Sandy Alderson clearly had no intention of re-signing the free agent, and he wasn’t alone. Murphy held out hope that he’d return to Queens, where he began his career when Shea Stadium was still standing. Alderson didn’t give in to any temptation that he might have had. Finally, on Dec. 24, 2015, the NL East-rival Nationals, of all teams, signed Murphy to a three-year, $37.5 million contract. (Murphy hadn’t been the Nats’ first choice at second base. Earlier in the month they had agreed to trade for Brandon Phillips, but the deal ultimately fell through.)
Had Murphy’s superhuman postseason been an anomaly, or had he finally turned a corner midway through his career? It had to be the former. Who becomes a superstar after turning 30?
Daniel Murphy, apparently.
In a cruel twist of fate, Murphy absolutely tormented the Mets — and the rest of the league — during his first season in D.C. He tightened up on the base paths, limited his mental errors (and physical ones), and hit like Ted Williams. The 32-year-old became a far more dangerous presence than Bryce Harper in the Nationals’ lineup, batting .347 with 25 homers, 104 RBIs, 47 doubles and a .390 on-base percentage in 142 games. In 75 at-bats against the Mets, he made them pay dearly for not believing in him. The sweet-swinging lefty hit .413 with seven home runs, 21 RBIs, six doubles and a .444 OBP.
He also made his second All-Star team, won the Silver Slugger Award and finished second to the Cubs’ Kris Bryant in NL MVP voting.
I watched hundreds upon hundreds of Murphy’s at-bats when he was a Met, and I always contended that if he learned to lay off bad pitches, work favorable counts and take his walks, he could be one of the most dangerous hitters in the league. In 2016, he did just that. Instead of fouling off outside curveballs, or popping them up weakly, and falling behind 1-2, he patiently let them go, got to 3-1 and ripped fastballs right over the plate. The result? He became one of the toughest outs in the sport.
Ahead of his second season in D.C., the question was whether Murphy was actually reborn, or rather a flash in the pan who had one exceptional season.
Eighteen games into 2017, he’s proving the doubters wrong and making a strong case that he is, almost inconceivably, one of the five best hitters in the majors. Batting .308 with three homers and 14 RBIs, he didn’t waste time making his former club miserable. On Sunday, in the finale of a three-game sweep by the Nationals, Murphy belted a backbreaking grand slam in the first inning that completely took the air out of the building.
More than any other player in recent memory who has left the Mets, Murphy’s departure and subsequent success sting the most.
I was mildly disappointed when the Mets didn’t re-sign Murphy after the 2015 season, but I figured that he wasn’t likely to improve. More realistically, he’d regress with age. He was never a great player to begin with, so why should I buy into that October mirage? But deep down I knew that the Mets might be making a grave mistake.
I never envisioned that Murphy would turn into the player he is now, but I worried that he might, at long last, put it all together. He’s done that, and is currently playing better than anyone could have possibly imagined.
It’s the perfect storm of misery for Mets fans. Murphy is playing like a Hall of Famer for New York’s rival, the team that it has to get past to reach the postseason. What makes this whole experience even more miserable is that Murphy wanted to come back to the Mets. He basically begged for a multiyear contract after turning down their one-year qualifying offer. It wouldn’t have cost the Wilpons much to keep him, but the organization was stubborn and set in its ways.
The icing on the cake is the construction of this current roster. New York’s offense is all or nothing, boom or bust, home runs or strikeouts. The Mets don’t move runners over, steal bases, sacrifice, manufacture runs, get extra-base hits or string together singles. They either score nine runs or muster three hits. Murphy is exactly the kind of player that New York could have used in its lineup last year, and could use right now. Instead, he’s contributing to his former club’s demise day in and day out.
One could even make the argument that Alderson would have been better off paying Murphy in 2015 than giving two massive contracts to Yoenis Cespedes.
Over a year has passed, and we can now say with confidence that letting Murphy walk was an absolutely dreadful decision that has cost the Mets dearly.
Murphy will continue haunting the Mets, potentially for years to come, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They missed their opportunity, and they may never live it down.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet