Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 19, 2013

Murphy And The Mets Hope To Move Past The Santa Jinx

Say this much for Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, he is willing to tempt fate. For the second time in three years Murphy donned the familiar red suit and white beard to play the part of Santa Claus at the team’s annual Christmas party at Citi Field. With an assist from pitcher Zack Wheeler in the role of an elf, Murphy spent part of Tuesday handing out presents to a long line of children from the neighborhoods around the Mets home in Queens.

In recent years participation in the Mets yuletide tradition has been followed by misfortune of some kind with sufficient regularity to make lesser men think twice before volunteering for Santa duty. It began in 2004 when popular right fielder Mike Cameron played Santa. The following August Cameron’s season, and ultimately his time with the Mets, ended in a gruesome collision in the outfield with Carlos Beltran. That December pitcher Kris Benson took the role, bringing along his wife Anna, who was dressed in a Mrs. Claus outfit better suited for her former role as an exotic dancer. A month later both Bensons were traded to the Orioles.

A pair of right handers coming off career years handed out the presents in 2007 and 2008. John Maine recorded 15 wins in 2007. He would notch just 18 more in three additional seasons of steadily declining performance after playing Santa. Mike Pelfrey, a 13-game winner in 2008, slumped to a losing record with an ERA over 5.00 in 2009. They were followed by Jeff Francoeur, who had hit .311 in half a season in New York in 2010. The next year, after his turn as Santa Claus, he batted just .237 and lost his place in the starting lineup before being dealt to Texas.

Team captain and third baseman David Wright was behind the beard in 2010, and promptly missed more than two months of the 2011 season with a stress fracture in his lower back. Finally just last year 20-game winner and newly named Cy Young Award recipient R.A. Dickey was the elf. Scarcely a week later Dickey was traded away to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Given that history and the fact that Murphy’s name has been a consistent part of trade rumors involving the Mets this off-season, one might think that Citi Field would be the last place he’d want to be this week. But he reportedly volunteered for Santa duty; and perhaps if there is a player capable of breaking the team’s apparent Kris Kringle jinx it’s the 28-year old. Murphy has endured plenty of adversity since coming to the majors in the latter part of the 2008 season, and seems to have taken all of the punches that fate has dealt him.

He arrived in Queens as an outfielder, but was asked to move to first base in 2009. Murphy had no sooner adjusted to his new position than he was asked to move again, when Ike Davis, the Mets first round pick in the 2008 amateur draft and a natural first baseman, made the big club in 2010. Murphy sprained his right knee playing second base during spring training, and then suffered a season-ending MCL tear in the same knee while rehabbing in the minors. After playing just 11 minor league games that year he missed the final two months of the 2011 season with a left knee sprain.

But in the last two years, finally settled in at second base, he’s provided adequate defense while batting .291 and .286. Those may not be All-Star numbers, but given all of the problems that Mets GM Sandy Alderson has faced, having a reliable bat and steady fielder has to have been a welcome relief. For his part, despite the rumors Murphy says he wants to stay in New York, and after the recent winter meetings his agent was quoted as having the sense that the Mets intended to keep their second baseman.

If Murphy does survive his second turn in the Santa suit, he will be part of a franchise that seems to be gradually awakening from its self-imposed financial slumber, brought on by majority owner Fred Wilpon’s losses to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. New York signed free agent outfielder Curtis Granderson to a four-year, $60 million contract during the winter meetings. While the Grandy Man missed more than 100 games last year due to a pair of freak injuries, he hit 84 home runs between 2011 and 2012. Last year at this time Alderson was reduced to making jokes about the anonymity of his outfielders. Now he has a three-time All Star penciled into the starting lineup in center field.

The Mets also lured free agent pitcher Bartolo Colon away from Oakland with a two-year, $20 million deal. Winner of the AL Cy Young Award with the Angels in 2005, Colon’s career was derailed after that with a series of injuries. After not pitching at all in 2010, he went to the Yankees spring training on a minor league deal in 2011. He wound up making the roster and provided valuable innings to a rotation that was hard hit by injury. That was good enough for Oakland to sign him in 2011, and in two years on the West Coast he won 28 games, including 18 last year when his ERA was just 2.65, close to a full point lower than his Cy Young season.  In Queens he will hopefully eat up innings and win some games while Matt Harvey, the team’s once and future ace, rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

To be sure, neither Granderson nor Colon alone are likely to propel the Mets to the playoffs, especially in the NL East where New York has to contend with both Atlanta and Washington. But for a team that has frustrated its fans by being forced to field a small market roster in the biggest market of all for the past several years, at least the two signings are a start.

Of course, these are still the Mets. Granderson hit all those homers while playing for the Yankees, where he took full advantage of that short right field porch at the Stadium. Whether that power display will transfer between boroughs to the more spacious Citi Field remains to be seen. Meanwhile he struck out 169 times in 2011 and 195 times in 2012. No doubt he will continue to be able to do that, no matter the dimensions of the ball park. For his part, Colon will turn 41 before the 2014 season is two months old, and his physique is more reminiscent of a sumo wrestler than a ball player.

In short, while both signings should be seen as positive signs by Mets fans, there are plenty of elements of risk in each. But then what else would one expect? After all, this may be the only team in the land where volunteering to play Santa Claus can be considered risky business.

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