David Murphy is not your average spring training invitee on a minor-league deal. He's not a young prospect coming up through the system, which he was the last time he was in camp with the Red Sox as the team's first round pick in the 2003 draft. He's not a guy like Carlos Marmol who's been out of the game for performance reasons. And he's not a Cesar Crespo/Pedro Ciriaco-type, a random flier who's either minor league depth or potential flyer.
Instead, Murphy is a guy who got completely left in the dust in the free-agency spree, an issue that David Freese is currently dealing with as well. Since the Red Sox traded Murphy for the oh-so-delightful Eric Gagne in 2007, he's carved a nice niche as an incredibly versatile fourth outfielder who had a knack for getting on base. That knack has fluctuated, more so in recent years than others, but Murphy became a pretty decent outfielder and certainly found work without issue, playing for the Rangers, Indians and Angels. And hey, he's even thrown a shutout inning off the mound against a certain baseball team.
After a season where he posted 0.0 bWAR between Cleveland and Los Angeles, however, Murphy has had to dig deep looking for another opportunity. Given the Red Sox's lack of outfield depth beyond Chris Young, the team needed some insurance, making them a perfect fit. After all, they're putting their all of their chips on the table with Jackie Bradley and Rusney Castillo, neither of whom has proved that they can actually play at the major league level consistently over the course of an entire season.
As such, Murphy has a much clearer path to a potential major league roster spot than most spring training invitees; he's a guy who's consistently hit right-handed pitching in the past, hitting .278/.341/.454 against them over the course of his career. And with Young essentially being a left-handed pitching specialist, hitting .327/.397/.575 with seven home runs against southpaws last season, Murphy makes for the perfect yin to Young's yang, the Matt Damon to his Ben Affleck (minus the over-the-top phoenix back tattoo, of course. We hope).
Still, Red Sox manager John Farrell said that Murphy signing with the team has nothing to do with Castillo.
"This is about David Murphy, a left-handed hitter, a veteran guy who understands that role and who was available to us," Farrell told the media in Fort Myers. "He’s here to provide depth and certainly compete for a spot on this team."
So here's the doomsday scenario: one of Jackie Bradley and Rusney Castillo clearly can't perform consistently at the major league level and the team needs to a starting outfielder. If Castillo bottoms out, Young and Murphy easily step into left field, where their defensive impacts can generally be minimized. If Bradley craters out, you could see Betts move back into center field and move Castillo from left to right. And if both Castillo and Bradley flame out, then the team is going to need to make a move bigger than both Murphy and Young to fill in that spot. An insurance policy built on backups and a minor league deal can only go so far.
The one major issue with Murphy is the defense, in that he doesn't really play it. Murphy was never much of a good defender to begin with, but he's now 34 years old and his legs aren't going to be getting any younger. Over the last two seasons, Murphy has posted defensive runs saved totals of -17 and -4, respectively. Even at his peak, Murphy was never better than a slightly-below-average defensive outfielder. It's the reason why he posted such a low WAR total despite putting together a pretty solid offensive campaign in 2015. It's likely a pretty decent part of why he was available on a minor league contract for the Red Sox.
The person who presumably stands in the way of Murphy making the roster, given that he performs relatively close to career norms (and, of course, that's not a given with Murphy's age), is Travis Shaw. Farrell mentioned that Shaw will see some time in the outfield to expand his versatility, beyond just being a safeguard behind Hanley Ramirez in what will certainly be an interesting move over to first base.
And with Shaw also being a left-handed hitter, you certainly can't discount his threat to Murphy for one of the last roster spots. Given that Murphy isn't the strongest defender in the outfield, if Shaw is able to put a similar, if not better, defensive performance in the outfield, the Red Sox might lean towards the younger player who has the potential to develop into a regular starter rather than the aging veteran looking for an opportunity to hang around at the major league level.
With Shaw, his viability as a fourth outfielder will be determined by his ability to complement Young. Shaw performed at an unsustainable rate last season in his extended opportunity at the major leagues, which I previously covered in this space, but a surprising number is that Shaw hit significantly better against left-handed pitching (.329/.353/.622) than against righties (.243/.319/.417), a mark that could separate Murphy from the Mayor of Ding Dong City.
Murphy, more so than most of the scrubs who receive invites to camp, will likely see an extended opportunity to play some meaningful (or as meaningful as spring training gets) innings. As it currently stands, Murphy projects as the perfect complement to Young as a left-handed hitter who hits righties well. Of course, given Brock Holt's presence as the human Swiss Army knife, the pure personnel roster crunch could push Murphy out of a job with this team, but that certainly doesn't mean he isn't going to have a shot to be on the roster for the big league squad out of camp.