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Washington Nationals’ Daniel Murphy not going to be ready for Opening Day... but that’s okay

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With options at second base, there’s no reason to rush Daniel Murphy. Will the Nationals’ sensible approach pay off once the second baseman is 100% healthy following offseason knee surgery?

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Back in mid-December, Washington Nationals’ General Manager Mike Rizzo was asked at the Winter Meetings if he felt he had to go out and acquire insurance for Daniel Murphy, in case the second baseman, who underwent debridement and microfracture surgery on his right knee in October, was not ready for Opening Day.

“No,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got a really good infielder in Wilmer Difo. He brings a lot to the table as far as bringing [Manager] Davey [Martinez] versatility and speed, switch hit, play great defense at shortstop and second base, can play third base, and we can throw him in the outfield. So he gives us versatility, gives us a great talent base, and he showed last year that he can play for extended periods of time and he’s a really good young player that probably deserves to have more time.”

Difo, who will turn 26 next month, played in 124 games in 2017, putting up a .271/.319/.370 line, 10 doubles, four triples, and five home runs in 365 plate appearances, over which he was worth 1.0 fWAR.

In a 51-game stretch between July 1st-September 1st, while Trea Turner was sidelined with a fractured wrist, Difo put up a .337/.387/.474 line with six of his 10 doubles, three of four triples, and four of five home runs on the season coming over that stretch.

Defensively, Difo, the Nationals noted in their Season in Review, ranked first in the NL (3rd in MLB) in Fangraphs.com’s Ultimate Zone Rate per 150 games (9.9 UZR/150) in ‘17, which, “... measures the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games.

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at Detroit Tigers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Murphy, who signed a 3-year/$37.5M deal with the Nats in January of 2016, acknowledged back in mid-December that it was going to be a slow process getting back on the field as he prepared for his third season in D.C.

“It’s going to be a progression,” Murphy told reporters. “I don’t want to put any timetables on it, because if you miss them, you guys get really fishy when stuff like that’s happened.”

In mid-January, the Nationals re-signed Howie Kendrick after acquiring the veteran from the Philadelphia Phillies in July of 2017.

“Love Howie Kendrick,“ Rizzo said in December ‘17, a month before his return was official.

“Love what he brought us in the clubhouse, with the young players, and he’s got a good skill set, and it all depends on what value he brings to us, but he’s a guy that did nothing but great things for us between the lines and in the clubhouse.”

In 91 games between the Phils and Nats, the 34-year-old put up a .315/.368/.475 line in ‘17, with 16 doubles, three triples, and nine home runs in 334 PAs, finishing at 1.6 fWAR on the season, and though he played just 15 games at second last season, he’s played there more than any other position over the course of his 12 major league campaigns.

With options at second base, Rizzo said in an interview with Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio hosts Eduardo Perez and Steven Phillips last week, the Nats are comfortable making sure Murphy is 100% healthy before he returns to the lineup.

“Murph, with his swing and his approach at the plate, I don’t think it takes a lot for him to get ready,” Rizzo explained, “... but we’re being very conservative with him, and we’ve got to make sure he’s right before he gets it going.”

“We want him to be 100 percent healthy and ready,” Martinez told reporters, as quoted by Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes yesterday, when Murphy and the Nats admitted the obvious fact that he wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day.

“We don’t want him to come back and play three days, and if his knee swells up he can’t play for two. We want him to be comfortable out there and make sure when he joins us he’s ready to play every day.”

Murphy, who isn’t running on the field, and hasn’t taken at bats even on the minor league side yet this Spring, acknowledged that though he wanted to be ready to go for the start of the season, his knee is dictating the pace of his recovery this Spring.

“I think naturally, for any athlete, I’m going to come back later than I wanted to,” Murphy said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman on Tuesday.

“Just as a competitor. But due to the fact that this is the first time I’ve had microfracture surgery, I wasn’t really certain what to expect. I’d talked to other guys who had gone through it, but each individual surgery or injury is unique. So I think whenever I do come back, from my personal prospective it will be later (than hoped), but it doesn’t mean it’ll be wrong.”

One of the guys Murphy talked to about the surgery and recovery, was Dodgers’ infielder Justin Turner, who underwent a similar procedure in October 2015 and was ready for the start of the 2016 season.

“We’ve just talked a little bit in passing about how he felt and some of the things that he felt leading into the surgery and then afterwards,” Murphy said last December.

“But what little we have spoken, he’s given me a ton of assurances that if we’re sensible about this and treat it the right way, it should hopefully be healthy.”

So far this Spring, with options at second, the Nationals and Murphy have taken a sensible approach that will hopefully pay off when he’s 100% and ready to return for what could be his final season in D.C. if he’s not signed to an extension before next winter.