FOX Sports MLB Analyst
After weeks of surprising free agent signings, the trade market finally produced its first blockbuster of the winter with the Oakland A’s shipping Sean Murphy, one of the best catchers in the sport, to the Atlanta Braves as part of a three-team deal. which also involved the Milwaukee Brewers.
The fact that Murphy was ultimately dealt wasn’t a surprise, but the way the trade unfolded was difficult to watch on several fronts.
For one, Atlanta didn’t enter this winter looking like a team in desperate need of the catching position. They had not one but two catchers after 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 several reports, causing some headaches around the league. What were they doing, exactly?
With Arnaud aging and questions about Contreras’ viability as a full-time catcher, it appears Atlanta prioritized identifying Murphy as a big enough upgrade in both the short and long term to be worth trading up for. just Contreras and another depth receiver 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 sure to be some old-school Braves fans looking at his .236 career average and wondering what all the fuss is about, but he’s been one of the top 5 catchers in baseball for both fWAR and bWAR over the last three seasons thanks in large part to more power and elite defense at the game’s most demanding position. It’s totally understandable that the national audience hasn’t fully realized how good this guy has been in the early stages of his career, but I have a feeling it won’t be long before they find out.
Oakland’s impact is underwhelming, but it’s in line with how they’ve approached their other trades during this dramatic rebuild: instead of going all-in on one top prospect, instead of getting a bunch of guys (especially pitchers) and hopefully several become useful big league contributors.
Lefty Muller and righty Tarnok pitched well in Triple-A this year and should be ready to start getting real MLB experience in 2023. Esteury Ruiz arrives with elite velocity (85 steals in Minors in 2022) and exciting defensive versatility, but serious concerns about how much power he’ll be able to reach at the highest level. Salinas is the real upside of a play, a hard-hitting 21-year-old righty who just struck out 175 batters in 109 innings in A-ball. He has yet to make any top 100 prospect lists, but a strong debut in Double-A could put him on the national radar for prospects.
The A’s generally went for quantity over quality, and a big collection of good prospects is rarely as well received publicly as a trade for a 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 kind of big leaguers the likes of Muller, Tarnok and Ruiz will become.
As for the Brewers getting into this deal by sending Ruiz to Oakland as part of their potential? To put it simply: I tip my hat. Milwaukee was already rumored to be in the mix for Murphy earlier in the offseason and was clearly chasing upgrades with Omar Narvaez hitting free agency. Contreras comes with a lot more defensive question marks than 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, but early returns suggest he could be as good a hitter as 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 a huge win for this front office. If they can turn 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 punch 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 looks like their appearance together in the All-Star Game last summer was just a preview of 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 it @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball throughout his adult life, mostly for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan who lives in the Eastern time zone, which means he loves a good 10pm first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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