The Nationals have been trying to acquire a second baseman for a while. At one point they were on the verge of acquiring Brandon Phillips. Ultimately the deal feel through as Phillips, who has a full no-trade clause, vetoed the deal. He wanted a guaranteed extension, which is absurd as he’s already overpaid and signed for two more years through his age 38 season.
The Nationals are lucky Phillips saved them from themselves. At this point in their careers, he’s no better than current National Danny Espinosa, who makes substantially less as a second-time arb eligible player. When it became clear the deal for Phillips was dead, they went out and signed lefty Daniel Murphy instead. I’m inclined to believe this is a better outcome for the Nationals, but I don’t think it’s a very large improvement.
The Nats gave Murphy a three-year deal worth $37.5 million. That’s annual average value of $12.5 million. All things considered that’s not a terrible deal. These days that AAV is what you pay for slightly above average players, which is exactly what Daniel Murphy is – for the most part.
Murphy’s primary position is second base, but he has played some first and third base over his career. Unless Anthony Rendon gets hurt though, he won’t be needed at third base. And while his bat is good for second base, it’s not what you want over at first base. So his only real value is at second base. Unfortunately, his defense there is not very good.
Daniel Murphy has five years at second base under his belt at the major league level. Not in a single year has he ever had a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) above -2. For DRS a range of 0 to +5 is considered average and 0 to -5 is considered below average. By this metric, Murphy has been well below average. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) confirms him as a below average fielder.
Danny Espinosa would have been the in-house candidate to man second base before the Murphy signing. And unlike Murphy, he’s actually a quality defender at the position. In six years, at the major league level he’s only had one season where he accrued less than +3 DRS. Defensive metrics are best viewed over a multi-year sample size. He had a -1 DRS in 2014, but a +10 in 2015. Looking at his whole career, he’s probably something closer to a +3 or +5 defender, which is pretty good.
So by going from Espinosa to Murphy, the Nationals are sacrificing quite a bit defensively. Of course there is a reason for that – Murphy is a much better offensive player. Over the last three years, Murphy has hit .285/.324/.420, good for a 109 wRC+. That’s equal to 9% above league average for all positions. League average production for second basemen over the last three years has been 96 wRC+. Espinosa has hit .217/.279/.361 over the last three years, which was good for a 74 wRC+. That’s well below average production for second base. Although he did earn a 94 wRC+.
Any way you look at it, Daniel Murphy is still the superior offensive player. But when you add in his poor defense, he’s still just a 2-2.5 win second baseman. That’s about an average to slightly above average player. That’s not a bad thing though. Average in major league baseball is quite good.
Espinosa was worth 2.3 fWAR in 2015. The previous season he earned just a 0.6 fWAR. The season before that was the worst of his young career: -0.6. But the previous two seasons he was worth 3+ fWAR. He very likely won’t reach that peak again. But if he can hit near league average he’s probably worth as much as Daniel Murphy is. That being said, Murphy is a much safer bet to reach that 2.5 fWAR mark.
There are still questions to be answered about the Nationals’ club in 2016 and beyond. What does Murphy’s signing mean for Trea Turner? He might be ready for a major league assignment as soon as Opening Day. That creates something of a logjam in the middle infield, but that’s one of those good problems. At the very least, the Murphy signing provides the Nationals with some nice depth, and that should be considered too. Overall I don’t think Daniel Murphy adds much in the way of win ceiling potential, but he does raise the floor a bit. And that can be important too.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs