WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - As every other position player on the Nationals roster took the field for the first time as a team this morning, Daniel Murphy could only watch. Though the veteran second baseman, still rehabbing from late-October knee surgery, has begun some baseball activities, they are admittedly limited.
“I started doing some knee drills,” Murphy said. “Played a little bit of catch. And that would be the extent of it right now. So ground balls on my knees and then play a little catch.”
Suffice it to say, Murphy still has a long way to go before he’s in the Nationals lineup. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility that will happen in time for opening day, but just as club officials have implored from the outset he’s not going to try to force his way back before his right knee will fully allow it.
“You see these guys bouncing around and playing, you want to participate and be playing with your teammates,” he said. “But I think it’s the understanding of ... when the training staff lets me go and it’s time to play, you only want to come off the DL once. I don’t want to start playing games and then have to stop. So that’s kind of the mindset we’re taking right now.”
The Nationals have known all along Murphy’s rehab from his complicated procedure - debridement and microfracture surgery - would take time. Doctors offered a general timetable of four to six months, but there aren’t many other baseball players who have had this surgery, so there isn’t as uniform of a rehab program as there is for other more common injuries.
Opening day (March 29 in Cincinnati) is nearly five weeks away. There’s still time for Murphy to do what he needs to do to hit that target. And if he doesn’t, the Nationals aren’t concerned about the possibility of playing Howie Kendrick or Wilmer Difo at second base until their starter is ready to return.
“I’m more concerned about rushing him, and him not being fully ready,” manager Davey Martinez said. “When we get him back, we don’t want him to go back on the DL. We want to get him back for the whole season.”
Murphy has made considerable progress since he last was seen by reporters in mid-December at Winterfest, when he was still using crutches to help him walk. The uninformed observer would see no evidence now of his injury, unless they noticed he’s not participating in on-field drills with his teammates.
Murphy said he got full range of motion back in his knee last month. He’s currently running on a treadmill at “60 percent weight-bearing.” He has not been cleared to start swinging a bat, which is the hardest restriction for a ballplayer who eats, drinks and sleeps the art of hitting.
“I may be a little bit unique or crazy,” he said. “But when I go to bed at night, if I can’t sleep, I fall asleep to at-bats in my mind, visualizing that stuff. So we’ll see if it works.”
Murphy hasn’t let his injury prevent him from talking non-stop about hitting. New hitting coach Kevin Long, who helped transform Murphy into one of the game’s best all-around hitters three years ago with the Mets, said the 32-year-old spent four hours in his office one day recently, then another three hours in the batting cage talking about hitting.
Murphy has been in regular contact with another former Mets teammate, Justin Turner, who had the same microfracture surgery at the same time of year after the 2015 season. Turner played for the Dodgers on opening day in 2016 and wound up setting career marks in homers, doubles and slugging percentage.
“I think we’re both in similar spots right now,” Murphy said. “Each one’s always going to be different. I’m more asking him what it looks like, what he experienced, more in the future. Cause where I am currently is really not going to change too much. So kind of what to expect is what we’ve talked about.”
The Grapefruit League starts Friday, and Murphy obviously won’t be ready to play by then. He hopes simply to get enough game time in, and get enough spring training plate appearances, to feel like he’s as close to 100 percent ready when the bell rings for good and he’s digging in for a major league at-bat.
How many at-bats would he need before he felt ready?
“It’s always such a tough question,” he said. “It’s a feel thing. I can never really put a number on it. I think I’ve done years where I had 20. I think I had a year where I led the Grapefruit League with 100. So probably between six and 100.”