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In Murphy He Trusts

By Jason Levy

With all the tabloid space in greater New York devoted to the Three Needle Circus of the New York Yankees spring training, New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel is doing all he can to get his team on the back pages. First, it was the idea of batting struggling second baseman Luis Castillo in the leadoff spot, taking sparkplug Jose Reyes out of his natural spot in the order. Now, Manuel is defying the notion of a platoon left field between two of the more surprising Mets last season, resurgent veteran Fernando Tatis and unheralded youngster Daniel Murphy, saying he will give Murphy the majority of the playing time in left field, while Tatis will be a jack-of-all-trades similar to Joe McEwing, presumably at the corner positions (left and right field, first and third base), possibly splitting more time with Ryan Church instead of Murphy.
A Tatis-Murphy combo would’ve been a no-brainer, using the right-hand hitting Tatis against lefties and the lefty Murphy against righties. But Manuel believes that Murphy can be better against lefties than fellow lefty Church, and could get more chances early on to prove himself. Murphy will be just 24 on Opening Day, a baby in Major League Baseball. Can any athlete that young be projected based on less than a third of a season? Will being named the starter by Manuel be too much pressure for the kid to handle?
Murphy put up some eye-catching numbers in just 131 at bats in 2008, hitting .313 with nine doubles, three triples, two homers, 17 RBIs and 24 runs scored. In 13 plate appearances against lefties, Murphy had four hits, good for a .400 average in a very limited sampling. Murphy also wasn’t fazed by pressure in his first 49 games, hitting over .300 in the first three innings and last three innings of games. But he did struggle toward the end of the season, posting no multiple hit games after September 18 (he had 10 up until then) and zero RBIs after September 24. But it did seem like every time he came up to bat, he pulled out a hit when some of the bigger bats couldn’t. With so much pressure on so many other players, a kid like Murphy can relax and let the players with the big contracts get asked the tough questions from the media and fans. Murphy batted in several different positions in the order, mostly second and sixth, and that versatility is also very appealing to Manuel. Here are a couple of potential lineups that Manuel can throw out there if he sticks to his guns about Murphy and Castillo:

VS. LHP
1. Luis Castillo-2B
2. Carlos Beltran-CF
3. Jose Reyes-SS
4. Carlos Delgado-1B
5. David Wright-3B
6. Daniel Murphy-LF
7. Fernando Tatis-RF
8. Brian Schneider-C

VS. RHP
1. Luis Castillo-2B
2. Carlos Beltran-CF
3. Jose Reyes-SS
4. Carlos Delgado-1B
5. David Wright-3B
6. Daniel Murphy-LF
7. Ryan Church-RF
8. Ramon Castro-C

In these lineups, Reyes and Beltran could be switched to put more power in the third spot. Murphy could possibly go in the two hole, but sixth would be too down in the order for Beltran, Delgado, or Wright. The second lineup is very, very lefty heavy, with Wright as the only naturally right-handed hitter in the lineup. But both of those lineups could be very dangerous if everyone plays up to their potential.
The first days of spring have shown Manuel to be much more daring and willing to experiment with the dynamics of the club that the laid back Willie Randolph ever was. With the end results of the past couple of seasons, the Mets should be willing to try anything to sustain a spark for all 162 games. Manuel’s interim tag was removed over the winter, but he still acts like he is playing with house money, and that could be just what the Mets need.

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