The year was 2006. The housing market is beginning to struggle. The world was captivated by films like Talladega Nights, Snakes On A Plane and another Pirates Of The Caribbean film. Junior high students everywhere swooned over the music of Fall Out Boy and Hawthorne Heights.
More importantly, in 2006 the Chicago Cubs were a bad baseball team in the final year of Dusty Baker‘s contract. If anything could have been taken away from that 96-loss club, it was an influx of solid, likable youngsters who would no doubt find their way achieving marginal big-league success at worst. Matt Murton was one of them, a 24-year-old red-headed outfielder who lacked real power (13 home runs and a .444 slugging percentage in 508 plate appearances in 2006), but was a terrific contact hitter. He was a pleasant, consistent contributor on a team with very little upside.
Fast forward ten years, and the two forces are reunited in 2016 on a minor-league contract. Matt Murton played his last game as a Cub in 2008 before being shipped off with Eric Patterson and Josh Donaldson (yep, that Josh Donaldson, who was a catcher back then) to the Oakland A’s for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin.
While Murton was well liked by Cubs fans, he was a casualty of winning, and the deal did pay off for the Cubs: Harden went an outstanding 5-1 in 72 innings with a microscopic 1.77 ERA and 3.39 xFIP, and his 11.3 SO/9 wasn’t too bad, either. Harden became an integral part of the Cubs’ dominant 97-win season.
Murton, on the other hand, bounced around from Oakland to Colorado, playing only 38 games between the end of 2008 and all of 2009. His contract was sold to the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball for the 2010 season, and Murton — the prototypical Quadruple-A player — would likely see success in Japan.
Not only did he see success, Matt Murton became a star in Japan. In 2010 he broke Ichiro’s single-season hits record by logging 214 throughout the league’s 144-game season, in the process hitting 17 home runs, driving in 91 and slashing .349/.395/.499. It was pleasant seeing Murton — one of the real good guys in baseball — break out at the professional level.
Through six seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, Murton rarely missed a game, slashed an aggregate .310/.354/.438, and hit 79 home runs while logging 1,037 hits. Last season was a down year for Murton, whose OPS was .691, but that didn’t stop him from a possible return to the big leagues.
And with this agreement with the Cubs, he gets his shot. The Cubs, as you’re well aware, are loaded at the big-league level, and it’s hard to imagine there being much of a need for Murton throughout the regular season. However, say a couple players go down, or it’s September and players get their call-ups. It’d be great to see Murton get another at-bat at Wrigley Field, if for nothing else the pure nostalgia of it all.
For context, in reflecting on those 2006 Cubs, only five players remain active: Geovany Soto, Rich Hill, Sean Marshall, Jerome Williams and Angel Pagan. Only three are currently signed, but Marshall and Williams could always end up somewhere between now and the end of 2016.
We can now add Murton to that list.