Sure enough, it looks like the Cubs are about to bring back the international sensation who got away, the friendly red-headed outfielder who has piled up line drives on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Not that Wrigley Field fans needed another reason to cheer, but they just might get a chance to watch the unlikely guy who broke Ichiro Suzuki's single-season hit record as a Hanshin Tiger help Joe Maddon's team in its quest to reach the World Series.
The move was reported from sources in Japan on Wednesday night, but has not been confirmed by the Cubs.
If the Cubs hadn't just won 97 games last year, you'd wonder if Theo Epstein was channeling Bill Veeck. There's zero chance that this is a publicity stunt, yet it is likely to be wildly popular among the Bleacher Bums, who struggled to get their arms around a former Cub part-time player collecting 214 hits in a season, as Murton did in 2010, the first of his six years in Japan.
Even though Epstein was with the Red Sox when they selected Murton from Georgia Tech with the 32nd pick of the 2003 Draft, sentimentality is not driving the Cubs' decision to give him a crack at replacing Chris Denorfia as a right-handed bat off the bench. He doesn't do anything if he's not convinced it will make his organization stronger, and you better believe he sees Murton as an asset, not a curiosity.
Murton is a good hitter. He was a good hitter when he broke into the Major Leagues with the Cubs in 2005, after leaving Boston alongside Nomar Garciaparra in Epstein's historic trade at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in '04. Murton just never hit for much power, which is ultimately why Jim Hendry was willing to trade him to Oakland and why the A's quickly sent him on to Colorado, where he was released in 2009.
It was the chance to play every day for Hanshin that allowed Murton to hit his stride. He followed his 214-hit season (in only 144 games, by the way) with 180 hits in 2011. Murton combined to hit 30 homers those two seasons, and the total package led to a four-year contract extension with the Tigers for 2012-15, delaying his return to America.
Murton says he succeeded in Japan in large part because the Tigers understood who they would be getting. They were looking for an all-around player and a strong teammate, not a solo artist swinging for the fences.
"Play good defense, run the bases, hit for average and hit some home runs along the way, too," is how Murton described his approach in a 2011 interview with The New York Times. "That was a different style of player than [Japanese teams] were going out to get."
Murton hit .338 to win the Central League batting title only two years ago, and he wound up hitting .310 over his six seasons in Japan. He hit 79 homers, drove in 424 runs and had a .792 OPS. Murton never struck out more than 81 times in a season and walked enough to raise his on-base percentage to .352.
Murton played some right field early in his Japanese tenure but has been mostly a left fielder in recent seasons. It will be interesting to see how Murton fits.
The Cubs seem set with Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler as their corner outfielders, and they already had attractive bench options in Chris Coghlan, Matt Szczur and Juan Perez (signed to a Minor League contract). Infielders Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist and even Kris Bryant could see time in the outfield, if needed, and prospects Billy McKinney and Albert Almora figure to be a phone call away in Iowa.
Murton could have found an easier outfield to crack. But there's something about the chance to chase baseball's Holy Grail behind Epstein and Joe Maddon that appeals to players.
So here comes Murton, back from Japan with some unfinished business of his own. A great story just got a little bit better with a reunion that no one saw coming.