Is he a catcher? A third baseman? Or an outfielder?
The Charleston RiverDogs' J.R. Murphy answers yes to all three.
"A lot of people ask me what my natural position is," said Murphy, who joined the RiverDogs last season. "I tell them I don't think I have a natural position. I'm just a baseball player, period. It doesn't matter where I play. If they tell me to go out and catch or play third base or go to the outfield or pitch, it doesn't matter as long as I'm on the field. I just want to play. I'm going to do whatever they ask me to do."
As a high school freshman, Murphy pitched and played third base. So, when Ken Balek, director of baseball at the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., pulled Murphy aside and asked him about moving to catcher for his sophomore season, Murphy jumped at the chance.
"Ken told me moving forward that my bat will be a bigger factor than my arm," Murphy said. "He asked me if I'd be willing to catch and play third base. He really felt like catching was going to be my future."
Murphy was excited about the transition.
"I'd never thought about being a full-time catcher, and I loved it from the first game I played," Murphy said. "That first year I had to get my legs under me and learn the position. The biggest thing for me was learning how to control the game. When you're catching, you can't take a pitch off."
Over the next three years, Murphy established himself as one of the top catching prospects in the country. He had dozens of scholarship offers and eventually signed with the University of Miami. He was also taken in the second round of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft by the New York Yankees, the parent club of the RiverDogs.
"I have a lot of family down in Miami and I was a huge Miami fan growing up," Murphy said. "It had always been a dream of mine to play for Miami."
In the end, Murphy picked the Yankees and their $1.25 million signing bonus over the Hurricanes.
"I think everyone has to make their own decision," Murphy said. "I think every situation is different. It was a family decision, and I have no regrets about signing with the Yankees."
Murphy spent 87 games with the RiverDogs last summer. He showed flashes of brilliance and power at the plate, but struggled early against professional pitching. Murphy finished the year hitting .255 with seven homers and 54 RBIs.
"I think I put too much pressure on myself coming up here," Murphy said. "I was still new to catching at this level, I didn't know anyone. I struggled when I first got here, but I think as I got more at bats and more games under my belt, I played better."
Murphy is off to an excellent start this season, hitting .314 with five homers and 26 RBIs.
"He's come such a long way since last summer," said Charleston RiverDogs hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. "For a 19-year-old kid who was still learning how to catch, I thought J.R. had a great season last year. This year, he's more mature. He knows the game better. He's so much more confident at the plate and with the pitchers. He has gotten so much better receiving the ball, and his throwing has improved."
With Yankees veteran catcher Jorge Posada near the end of his career, there is room for advancement for the first time in years within the Yankees farm system.
"Anything that happens at that level is going to have a trickle-down effect," Murphy said.
The problem for Murphy is that the Yankees have stockpiled plenty of talent behind the plate in their farm system. The heir apparent to Posada appears to be Jesus Montero, who played with RiverDogs during the 2008 season. Then there's Austin Romine, who also played for the RiverDogs in 2008, and current Charleston teammate Gary Sanchez.
"The Yankees have some good catchers in their system, and that's one of the reasons I'm playing the other positions," Murphy said. "I don't look at it like a competition with those guys. I can't control what the Yankees do. I can only control what I can control, and as long as I take care of my business and get better each day, everything else will take care of itself.
"The more I can do, the better chance I've got of advancing. The Yankees might not like me as a catcher, but want me at third base. There might be some other teams out there that like me better as a catcher. There's just no telling."
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