After weeks of eye-popping free agent signings, the trade market finally produced its first blockbuster of the winter with the Oakland A’s sending Sean Murphy, one of the best catchers in the sport, to the Atlanta Braves as part of a three-team deal that also involved the Milwaukee Brewers.
That Murphy was ultimately dealt came as no surprise, but the form the trade came in was difficult to see coming on multiple fronts.
For one, Atlanta did not enter this winter looking like a team in desperate need at the catching position. They had not one but two catchers coming off All-Star years — veteran Travis d’Arnaud and 24-year-old William Contreras. Still, as the Murphy sweepstakes heated up over the past few weeks, the Braves were mentioned in multiple reports, prompting a fair bit of head-scratching across the league. What, exactly, were they up to?
With d’Arnaud getting older and questions looming regarding Contreras’ viability as a full-time catcher, it seems that Atlanta prioritized identified Murphy as a large enough upgrade both short and long term to be worth flipping not only Contreras and another depth catcher in Manny Piña, but also three legitimate pitching prospects in Kyle Muller, Freddy Tarnok and Royber Salinas.
Regardless of what they gave up, I support the general sentiment that Murphy was worth it. There are surely some old-school Braves fans looking at his .236 career average and wondering what all the fuss is about, but he’s been a top-5 catcher in baseball by both fWAR and bWAR over the last three seasons thanks in large part to plus power and elite defense at the game’s most demanding position. It’s totally understandable if the national audience hasn’t fully caught on to just how good this guy has been in the early stages of his career, but I have a feeling it won’t take long for them to find out.
Oakland’s haul is underwhelming on its face, but falls in line with how they’ve approached their other trades during this dramatic rebuild: rather than gamble it all on one premier prospect, instead get a bunch of guys (especially pitchers) and hope several of them become useful big league contributors.
Left-hander Muller and righty Tarnok both pitched well in Triple-A this year and should be ready to start getting some real MLB experience in 2023. Esteury Ruiz comes with elite speed (85 steals in the Minors in 2022) and exciting defensive versatility but severe concerns about how much power he’ll be able to get to at the highest level. Salinas is the real upside a play, a 21-year-old, hard-throwing right-hander who just struck out 175 batters in 109 innings in A-ball. He hasn’t jumped onto any top-100 prospect lists just yet, but a strong debut in Double-A could very well put him on the national radar prospect-wise.
On the whole, the A’s opted for quantity over quality, and a large collection of good prospects is rarely as well received publicly as a trade for one crown jewel prospect with future superstar written all over him. It’s not pretty, but we won’t have to wait long to see what kinds of big leagues the likes of Muller, Tarnok and Ruiz will turn into.
As for the Brewers wiggling their way into this deal by sending Ruiz to Oakland as part of their prospect haul? To put it simply: I tip my cap. Milwaukee was already rumored to be in the mix for Murphy earlier in the off-season and were clearly pursuing catching upgrades with Omar Narvaez hitting free agency. Contreras comes with far more defensive question marks than the Gold Glover Murphy, but if the goal was to acquire a long-term catching solution this winter, mission accomplished!
Not only is Contreras under contract for five more seasons to Murphy’s three, early returns suggest he could be every bit the hitter Murphy is, if not better. That it only cost Ruiz, a good-not-great prospect with significant questions about his offensive potential and who the Brewers had just acquired in July for Josh Hader, is an enormous victory for this front office. If they can develop Contreras into a reliable starting option behind the plate, he should become a staple in the Brewers’ lineup for years to come. More importantly, he adds real thump to the lineup in the short term as Milwaukee tries to keep pace with the Cardinals in the NL Central, who just so happened to sign his brother, Willson, to a long-term deal last week. It seems their joint All-Star Game appearance this past summer was just an appetizer for what should be a wonderful rivalry to watch over the next half-decade in the NL Central.
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Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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