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Yanks catch a star on rise

IMG Academy alum, J.R. Murphy, is working his way up the Yankees' farm system

New York Yankees starting catcher Russell Martin is not hitting his weight, power-hitting prospect Jesus Montero was traded to the Seattle Mariners and prospect Austin Romine spent most of the season sidelined by back problems.

Yankees fans are worried about the future of the catching position. They will have to be patient because J.R. Murphy finished his first full season playing nearly every day behind the plate in the minors.

But he is on the way.

When New York’s Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder, began their Eastern League playoff series against Reading on Wednesday night, it was the first professional playoff game for Murphy, a 5-foot-11 195-pound native of Bradenton, Fla., who was picked in the second round of the 2009 draft.

“The first couple years of pro ball was definitely a huge adjustment to playing that many games behind home plate, but this last year — especially this year — I feel like a catcher,” Murphy said Saturday before playing the Binghamton Mets. “I feel like I could that and do it for a long time. Until they tell me I can’t do it any more, that’s what I want to do.”

Murphy put himself on a path to professional baseball when he chose to go to high school at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The school day at IMG ends at noon, and practice begins. Students put all their eggs in one basket, picking one sport to become their focus. Murphy grew up around IMG; he is the son of the Academy Director of Admissions, Carolina Murphy.

“I think the game probably decided itself instead of me deciding,” Murphy said of baseball. “I knew baseball, from when I was a little kid, was going to be my favorite sport. That’s just the way it was. The four years at school there really helped me prepare. It’s more like a college atmosphere there, so it really helps you prepare for the next step — whether that’s college or professional.”

During Murphy’s senior season, IMG Academy went 30-1. He had committed to the University of Miami, except the Yankees came calling in the second round of the 2009 draft. They offered Murphy $1.25 million to entice him to start his professional career immediately.

“He’s a great kid, and he’s a really good player — has been since the day he signed,” said Trenton hitting coach Tom Slater, who managed Murphy in the Gulf Coast League. “He came in polished and ready to go as a hitter.”

Murphy played nine games in the Gulf Coast League in 2009. He played 87 games for the Low-A affiliate Charleston of the South Atlantic League in 2010, and started 2011 in Charleston splitting time with Gary Sanchez, another highly-rated catching prospect.

Sanchez is more highly-rated prospect by Baseball America (No. 4 in the Yankees’ organization). However, when Sanchez and Murphy two split time in Charleston in 2011, Murphy batted .297 with 23 doubles, six home runs, and 32 RBIs in 63 games. Murphy earned South Atlantic League mid-season all-star honors as well as a promotion to High-A Tampa. where he played 23 games.

Murphy began this season back with Tampa. He batted .257 with 14 doubles, five home runs, and 28 RBI in 67 games, and he was selected as a Florida State League midseason all-star before joining Double-A Trenton on July 3.

“For a kid his age, number one, he’s a catch-and-throw guy, but he receives extremely well,” said B-Mets manager Pedro Lopez, who caught for 13 years in the minors. “He does a good job calling the game. I like him because he’s just quiet behind the plate. I think he’s going to be a good one.”

Baseball America ranked Murphy as the No. 9 prospect in the Yankees farm system prior to this season. Going into last season, Murphy spent time playing both outfielder and third base in the instructional leagues. He played third base in spring training this season, but Murphy has settled the question about whether or not he belongs behind the plate.

After throwing out 24 percent of runners stealing bases last season, Murphy worked with the Yankees minor league staff —including catching coordinator Julio Mosquera and Trenton catching coach Luis Dorante — to clean up his technique and mechanics and threw out 39 percent of runners since joining Trenton.

“Having had this guy in his first year of professional baseball and now he joins us midway through this year, (his defense was) the first thing that jumped out at me,” Slater said. “And I told Murph, I said, ‘You look great back there with both your receiving and your exchange.’”