July 11, 2024

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Byte Class Technology & Sports Update

Sean Murphy trade grades: Braves and Brewers get high marks in catcher swap; the A’s get an ‘F’

Sean Murphy trade grades: Braves and Brewers get high marks in catcher swap; the A’s get an ‘F’
Sean Murphy trade grades: Braves and Brewers get high marks in catcher swap; the A’s get an ‘F’

The Braves, Brewers, and Athletics agreed to terms on Monday on a three-team, nine-player trade that sent Gold Glove backstop Sean Murphy to Atlanta, All-Star catcher William Contreras to Milwaukee, and a five-player package led by outfielder Esteury Ruiz and lefty Kyle Muller to Oakland. 

Here’s the trade in whole:

  • Braves receive: C Sean Murphy
  • Brewers receive: C William Contreras, RHP Joel Payamps, LHP Justin Yeager
  • Athletics receive: OF Esteury Ruiz, LHP Kyle Muller, RHP Freddy Tarnok, C Manny Piña, RHP Royber Salinas

You should know the drill by now. We here at CBS Sports are nothing if not the judgemental kind, and that means that whenever a big trade happens, we dissect it by grading how the respective parties did. We will note, as always, that this exercise is for entertainment purposes only and it’s fine to disagree with our assessment. We’d rather overreact to baseball trades than spend our finite time on this plane of existence dreading the nightmare waiting for humanity just around the bend. We suspect that the same is true of you.

With that in mind, let’s get this show on the road.

Braves: A

Let’s put it this way. The only reservation we can muster on Atlanta’s side of the trade is that this deal further thins an already spent farm system — and it does so to upgrade a position the Braves seemed to be set at. That’s about it. Otherwise, it’s hard to foresee a scenario where the Braves regret this deal.

In Murphy, the Braves obtained a 28-year-old catcher with three more seasons of remaining team control. Backstops who can contribute both at and behind the plate are always in high demand and short supply. Murphy is one of those.

Murphy has posted a 114 OPS+ for his career, yet there’s reason to believe he may have more to offer. To wit, last season he set a new career-best in maximum exit velocity, ranking in the 94th percentile. That put him in company with the likes of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Rafael Devers. Even if the Braves don’t attempt to help him better tap into his raw strength, getting away from Oakland’s spacious ballpark seems like a move that will empower him to top 20 home runs for the first time in his big-league career. That’s an enticing proposition given his willingness to walk and the improvements he made last season on his strikeout rate (from 25.4 percent to 20.3 percent).

Murphy is also a highly skilled defender. He ranked in the 86th percentile in framing and in the 96th percentile in pop time (how long it takes for him to get the ball to second base). Factor in how he receives high marks for his leadership and staff handling, and he’d be worth employing and starting even if he were a below-average hitter. That he comes equipped with an above-average stick makes him one of the best backstops in the game.

Again, the Braves already had a sweet catching stable with Travis d’Arnaud, Contreras, and Piña, but you can understand why they made this deal, beginning with it being wise to upgrade whenever and wherever one can — and especially with the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies adding stars left and right to their collections. Plus, while the Braves probably would’ve been fine running the same catching situation out there for another year, it is worth noting that d’Arnaud is getting up there in age and has never been physically sturdy; Contreras is a subpar defender; and Piña is an aging backup. There was no reason not to acquire Murphy if the cost made sense. (Coincidentally, the most painful part of the trade for the Braves may not have involved the Athletics at all, but sending Contreras to the Brewers.)

The question for the Braves now is what they do at shortstop. Acquiring Murphy certainly doesn’t price them out of making another run at retaining Dansby Swanson, that’s for sure, though it does give them even fewer prospects to deal if they opt instead to hit the trade market.

Brewers: A

How’s this for an opportunistic piece of business by the Brewers. They traded one player, in Ruiz, who was maybe the third or fourth most important piece of their return on Josh Hader; in exchange, they acquired Contreras, a part-time catcher who hit well enough to post a 138 OPS+ and earn an All-Star Game nod in 2022.

Contreras, soon to turn 25, can really put a charge into the ball. He’s homered 28 times in 153 career big-league games, and his power is legit: his maximum exit velocity last season ranked in the 97th percentile. He also mostly minds the strike zone, giving him a good offensive base from which to build. Contreras has his warts, too, sure. He’s highly prone to swinging and missing (his whiff rate was 10 percent points higher than the league-average mark) and he’s a well-below-average receiver behind the plate, to the extent that the Brewers will likely look to get him some reps in the outfield and at DH.

It’s reasonable to fear Contreras’ strikeout rate ballooning and sinking his offensive value as he takes on an everyday role, or the Brewers growing tired of him costing their pitchers strikes. But the transaction cost here is such that the Brewers would have been fools to pass on this deal. Plus, it’s possible that catching instructor Charlie Greene can help Contreras’ glovework the way he did with Omar Narváez (and others). And who knows, maybe the automated strike zone gets installed in a year or two and eliminates framing as a skill? 

In addition to Contreras, the Brewers nabbed two relievers. Payamps is a 28-year-old who has now changed teams seven teams since November 2020. He appeared in 41 games last season, amassing a 3.23 ERA and a 2.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He figures to be part of Milwaukee’s Opening Day pen. Yeager could pitch in the majors in 2023, too. He has erratic control over his power fastball-slider combination.

Whatever path fate takes, Contreras is under team control through the 2027 season. He won’t be arbitration eligible until winter 2024. The Brewers added a long-term piece here without giving up a player they’re likely to miss. What a gift, what a blessing. These kinds of opportunities don’t come along often. 

Athletics: F

There’s no way to quantify this sentiment, but it sure feels like the Athletics’ front office is the one most inclined to experience tunnel vision about players (and skill sets) they like. For evidence, you can look back at some of the trades they made last summer or spring. Or, heck, you can just gawk at this one, which saw them take the most desired player on the trade market, shop him around to most of the league, and then somehow accept this package.

The only way to view this return as fair value for Murphy is to believe that Ruiz and/or Muller are future stars. Is that a reasonable stance to take? Not to us, nor to the handful of scouts and analysts we talked to for this piece.

Ruiz, 24 in February, has now been traded three times, including twice in the past six months. (He was sent to Milwaukee in the Josh Hader trade.) He put up phenomenal statistics in the minors, batting .332/.447/.526 overall with 16 home runs and 85 steals, but he doesn’t hit the ball hard. What he does do is provide secondary value with his legs in the outfield and on the basepaths.

The expectation for Ruiz has been that he ends up as a reserve. Put simply, it’s hard to maintain a good average or a healthy on-base percentage when pitchers don’t fear your ability to sting mistakes. The Athletics are gambling that Ruiz’s hit tool translates and, to be fair, they have had success with other batters who had substandard exit velocity. Those hitters tend to overcome their deficiencies by spraying the ball around the diamond at an optimized angle. Maybe Ruiz is the next in line, but if he is, it’s a collection that has included the likes of Tony Kemp, Yan Gomes, and Robbie Grossman. Solid players, just not the kind of player you’d like to fetch in return for Murphy.

Muller, 25, is a 6-foot-7 left-hander with loud stuff (including a mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss slider) and a history of control problems. He’s walked more than five batters per nine innings for his professional career, though he did shave that rate to under three last season. There’s genuine upside here if Muller’s command improvements prove sustainable. If not? He’s probably just a reliever, albeit one who could pitch in high-leverage situations. The A’s have every reason to give him a season or two to prove he can start.

Tarnok and Salinas are both relievers in the eyes of other teams’ scouts. Tarnok is a 24-year-old with a good fastball who has already reached the majors. Salinas is a 21-year-old who throws hard and struck out 13 batters per nine in High-A. As with Muller, the Athletics could give them ample chances to start, even if they still end up pitching in the bullpen when all is said and done.

Piña, 35, isn’t a long-term piece for the Athletics. Supposing that he sticks for the winter, he’s a quality backup who should be able to help youngster Shea Langeliers adjust to life as an everyday big-league catcher. Piña holds a club option for next season. It’s hard to see the A’s employing him for that long. Look for him to change teams sometime between now and next winter.

To recap: the A’s surrendered several seasons from one of the best catchers in baseball for a package that may include — again, in the eyes of professional evaluators — a fourth outfielder, a mid-rotation starter, two relievers, and a backup catcher. Shy of the Athletics being more correct in their evaluation than those sources CBS Sports spoke with, it’s hard to be optimistic about this deal.

Indeed, it’s hard to be optimistic about the A’s at all. They won’t spend money on talent and they haven’t drafted well enough to have it coming through their pipeline in waves. Once they decided it was time to punt on their last core (because of the group’s rising salaries) and rebuild, their best bet at returning to relevance in the near future was to nail their slate of reset trades, the way they have time and again over the last two decades. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the A’s did that, here or previously. Maybe time will tell a different tale and Oakland will get the last laugh; it’s happened before. But the story being spread within the industry has the Athletics falling out of touch and out of focus while falling behind the curve. These A’s aren’t dancing on the bleeding edge anymore, they’re just bleeding.