Now the dust has settled, who won the Sean Murphy trade?

On 14 March 2022, the Oakland Athletics were “excited” to land Braves’ top prospects Cristian Pache and Shea Langeliers in the deal which sent stud first baseman Matt Olson to Atlanta. Martin Gallegos, Oakland’s beat reporter for MLB, described Pache as “one of the most exciting young prospects in baseball, and it’s easy to see why with his tremendous speed and elite Gold Glove-calibre defence in centre field.”

Seemingly unable to hit at the major-league level, Pache was booted from the 40-man roster yesterday. Life comes at you quickly.

In December 2022, Oakland once again found the Braves were a suitable trade partner, and once again they acquired a speedy outfielder with suspect-hitting abilities. This time, however, the Milwaukee Brewers finagled themselves into the deal, the details of which were concisely summed up by Jeff Passan.

Oakland was widely ridiculed for their return, while both Atlanta and Milwaukee received plaudits for their shrewd negotiations. Now that we have had time to digest the deal, a quartet of Bat Flips & Nerds writers reflect on the biggest trade of the offseason.

First up, Braves correspondent Charlie Deeks.

On the surface, and through the lens of traditional batting stats, this trade might seem like an odd one for the Braves. They already boasted an excellent catching duo of William Contreras and Travis d’Arnaud, and already have a severely depleted farm system, so trading Contreras plus their first, sixth and 18th overall prospects and Manny Piña and Justin Yeager to switch catchers is a big move to make.

Contreras was an All-Star in 2022, is younger than Sean Murphy, and had Murphy beat in almost every traditional batting stat. So what makes Murphy so much more valuable than Contreras? 

In short, the answer lies in positional scarcity. The Braves see Murphy as a catcher in the long-term, whereas Contreras is likely to have to move to the outfield or the DH spot – and finding a full-time catcher with the offensive output that Contreras provides is much harder than finding a DH with the same stats. Murphy is an elite defensive catcher – according to Statcast, in 2022, his pop time ranked third in the league, and his framing ranked sixth – whereas Contreras ranked 38th and 46th, respectively. 

Also, while Contreras was the better batter in 2022, there’s good reason to believe that Murphy’s batting will improve after leaving the cavernous Coliseum in Oakland. His batting splits at home last season were .226/.319/.383, in comparison to .272/.345/.467 on the road. Indeed, Murphy is already making strides to that effect, slashing a promising .267/.353/.413 in spring, including this gigantic tater off the batter’s eye in straight away centre field. 

The Braves are also well-positioned to cover for the loss of the premium prospects in the deal. Both Kyle Muller and Freddy Tarnok are starting pitchers that cracked the big leagues last year, but both would likely be low down in the Braves plans for the majors, languishing behind both Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd after their excellent spring performances, and Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder as starters with big-league experience. The Braves are right to be confident with their rotational depth and could afford to ship off some major-league-ready talent to secure a long-term upgrade to their starting nine. 

The Braves are all-in with their young core of players, and with d’Arnaud only under contract until the end of 2023, the Braves made a move to lock up a premium catcher for their championship window. But why right now, further depleting an already barren farm system? Well, Braves GM Alex Anthoupoulos noted that: 

“…you can’t control when players come available. You can say you don’t have a need in [2023] and pass. But you may not have access to that player again.” 

That’s why the Braves did all they could to get their hands on Murphy. Especially now that the Braves have signed him to a six-year, $73m extension. If he keeps producing at the same rate and provides stability at the catcher position, the Braves should have comfortably won this trade.

It is difficult to argue with Charlie’s pro-Braves take on the deal, so let us hear from Athletics’ correspondent Brett Walker for the Oakland perspective.

I included my thoughts on the trade as part of my article on the A’s offseason activity at the start of the year.

My thoughts remain pretty much unchanged if I’m honest; it is a trade that leaves the A’s demonstrably weaker, as Murphy was one of the best catchers in the league last season while also leading the Athletics in many batting stats and coming second in home runs and RBIs. In return, other than prospects, the only MLB-ready player the A’s received was Manny Pina, who is not as strong as Murphy, either behind the plate or at-bat. The really galling thing, for me at least, is that it was a trade that the A’s didn’t need to make, given Murphy was under team control for three more seasons and wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) campaigning to be traded.

If anything, this trade, along with the trade that sent Matt Olson to the Braves last offseason, speaks to the strategy of the Athletics’ front office in my mind; the intention seems to be to focus on developing prospects. Once those prospects become MLB-calibre players that have earned a contract that pays them the same as their peers across the league, the A’s then trade them for another slew of prospects rather than paying them what they’re worth.

We saw this with Matt Olson and Matt Chapman last year, who were traded to the Braves and the Blue Jays, respectively, before Olson then promptly signed a multi-year multi-million dollar extension with his new team, and Chapman signed one with his. As Charlie highlights in his thoughts, we’ve also seen it with the Sean Murphy trade too, as he has since signed a contract extension with the Braves that now pays him $12 million/year when he was earning less than $1 million/year as a member of the A’s.

As I said in my piece at the start of the year, this means it’s very frustrating to be an A’s fan, as we are, at times, a team that plays good competitive baseball throughout the regular season, making the playoffs in the process, but we are never a team that is seriously contending to win the World Series.

While Esteury Ruiz has looked good during spring training and Kyle Muller has been named the starting pitcher on Opening Day against the Angels, we won’t be able to properly assess who has ‘won’ the trade for a few years yet until we see how the likes of Muller and Ruiz fully develop in the major leagues. In terms of where all the teams are at currently, though, I stand by my previous assertion that the Braves and the Brewers will be “rubbing their hands with glee”, particularly given sports writers of the opposing teams are already pointing out how badly the trade is working out for the A’s thus far.

Brewers’ correspondent Matthew Robinson offered his take from Milwaukee’s point of view

It was pretty crazy for the Brewers to insert themselves into this trade as the third wheel, and yet come off looking like the winners. Catching was arguably the Brewers’ greatest position of need heading into the offseason after Omar Narvaez was let go, so landing an All-Star who is controllable for several years is a coup.

The Brewers dealt from an area of depth; four of the Brewers’ five top prospects are outfielders, and that’s even after losing Estuery Ruiz.

As detailed by Jeff Passan below, Ruiz was picked up in the Hader trade back in August, with that trade now looking a bit better.

All three correspondents share the popular view that Oakland pulled the trigger too soon, and Atlanta and Milwaukee can be very pleased with their return.

Fans of smaller market/low-ambition teams always hope that their club has uncovered a diamond in their trade partner’s farm system. Alas, as demonstrated by the Pache example in the opening paragraph, perhaps Oakland’s golden Moneyball era of hoodwinking other teams is a distant memory.

That’s not to say it cannot be done. The Tampa Bay Rays regularly pull off shocks, like plucking 29-year-old rookie Nick Anderson from the Marlins…

Or Isaac Paredes from the Tigers…

Isaac Paredes (TIGERS)1721421165
Isaac Paredes (RAYS)331482045114

And most memorable of all, getting Randy Arozarena as a throw-in in the deal, which had St Louis Cardinals fans thinking they suckered the Rays, who gave up pitching prospect Matt Libertore for veteran slugged Jose Martinez.

Post-trade, even the great Baseball America had Randy pegged as a reserve outfielder.

Two things are inescapable. One, the Oakland Athletics do not want to pay their players market rate, so they are forced to trade them away for cheaper assets. Two, predicting which prospects turn into major league superstars is a skill which none of the 30 MLB teams has mastered.

For every Cristian Pache, a Top 10 prospect who fails to make the grade, there are several Nick Anderson or Isaac Paredes types who never appeared on prospects lists.

So, to circling back to something that Charlie said about the Braves timeline, “you can’t control when players come available.” Perhaps this was the motivation for Oakland.

If Sean Murphy gets injured – and catchers get injured every month – his trade value takes a hit. And if Estuery Ruiz starts 2023 like he played in 2022, then there is no way Oakland can prise him away from Milwaukee.

A reminder of his 2022 stats in the high minors: 114 games, 114 runs, 16 home runs, 85 stolen bases, with an exceptional .447 OBP.

So, timing is everything. And maybe the time was right for Oakland. Maybe Oakland’s Midas touch still exists. While the clever money is getting over-excited by Rookie of the Year contenders like Gunnar Henderson, Anthony Volpe, and Corbin Carroll, what if Ruiz is the real deal? As Brett said, we won’t be able to properly assess who has ‘won’ the trade for a few years yet, but I’m happy to consider this one of those rare win-win-win trades.

Make a note in your diary for March 2026, and we will revisit this trade.

Featured image of Sean Murphy by Julio Aguilar

Matt Robinson, Brett Walker, Charlie Deeks, and Gav Tramps are contributors to Bat Flips & Nerds. Click on the link to follow us on Twitter. Want to write about baseball? Hit the Write for Us link above.

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