With so much attention focused on the Braves’ shortstop vacancy, Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s stealthy top baseball executive, threw a figurative curveball into the hot stove Monday by trading for Oakland catcher Sean Murphy — a Gold Glove winner who happens to play a position where the Braves were deepest, returning not one but two catchers who made last year’s National League All-Star team.
One of those All-Stars, William Contreras, will not be returning now. He was the top piece among six Braves players and prospects who were shipped out in the three-team trade with the Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers.
Just when it looked as if the Braves might finish 2022 on a quiet note, after doing little at last week’s Winter Meetings, Anthopoulos did a figurative cannonball off the high dive. It was that kind of splash by the Braves general manager and president of baseball operations, who didn’t need a catcher but decided the chance to land Murphy, who has three years of control before free agency, was too good to pass up.
“You look at all the tools — the throwing, the blocking, the hands — all of that is plus,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s a plus defender, and he’s got ability with the bat, he can call a good game and he prepares, and great teammate. All that stuff is very important to us, especially at that position, more than anything else. It’s one that we’ve put a premium on since I got here. We really have a specific skill set that we look for (from catchers). It’s hard to get all of those things. He checks a lot of boxes when it comes to those things.”
The Braves are sending to Oakland a package that includes their two top pitching prospects, Kyle Muller and right-hander Freddy Tarnok. They were rated first and ninth, respectively, in Baseball America’s recent Braves Top 10 prospects list. Also heading to the A’s are backup catcher Manny Piña and minor-league right-hander Royber Salina.
Braves minor-league right-hander Justin Yeager is going to Milwaukee with Contreras. In addition, the Brewers received right-handed reliever Joel Payamps from Oakland and sent top outfield prospect Esteury Ruiz to the Athletics.
Murphy, 28, is eligible for arbitration for the first time and projected to get a modest $3.5 million for 2023, which is actually $500,000 less than Piña will make in the second year of a contract he signed with the Braves in November 2021. Given the Braves’ recent history, there’s a good chance they will try to sign Murphy to a long-term extension, much as they did his former Oakland teammate, Matt Olson.
When Olson was traded to the Braves in March to replace Freddie Freeman, within 24 hours he agreed to an eight-year, $168 million extension.
The Braves still have veteran All-Star catcher Travis d’Arnaud under contract for 2023 at $8 million, plus an $8 million club option for 2024 with no buyout. With his recent offensive performance and excellent reputation for handling a pitching staff, plus that affordable contract, d’Arnaud would be attractive to potential trade suitors if the Braves look to move him at some point.
But Anthopoulos was adamant about the Braves’ plans to keep d’Arnaud, who’ll be 34 next season, and have him split the catching duties with Murphy, with both also getting plenty of at-bats as designated hitter and both sometimes appearing in the same lineup.
“I talked to Travis and obviously Snit (manager Brian Snitker) as well,” Anthopoulos said. “There’s going to be plenty of at-bats. Ultimately starts behind the plate and all that, and you have the DH spot. That’s up to Snit. But I talked to Travis before anything was done. I contacted him just to let him know. Travis is going to be here. Huge part of our team, and we have playing time to go around, between DH (and catcher). Similar to what we had with Contreras, same type of deal, where we were going to have at-bats.
“How it gets split up in terms of starts behind the plate, that’s up to Snit. But especially at that position, you’re going to need fresh legs and so on, and we’ve got DH at-bats. So there will be plenty of playing time to go around. He (d’Arnaud) is still a key part of our club, and he was all in. … With the DH, it works.”
As for their shortstop opening, with free agent Dansby Swanson still an unsigned free agent — the Atlanta-area native got married Saturday in Georgia — Anthopoulos remained typically quiet about any remaining possibility of re-signing Swanson or potential trade targets, and said if the season began today the Braves would have either Vaughn Grissom or Orlando Arcia at shortstop, depending on how a potential position battle between those two goes this spring.
“But the season doesn’t start today,” Anthopoulos said, indicating the Braves are still looking, but also sharing some more praise for Grissom that the GM heard recently from Ron Washington, the Braves infield instructor.
Washington is working with Grissom in three week-long one-on-one sessions this winter in Washington’s New Orleans hometown, solely designed to get Grissom ready to play shortstop at the major-league level. Anthopoulos said it’s not like Washington to lavish praise on a young player, but he did regarding Grissom’s progress.
In Murphy, the Braves have certainly strengthened their defense behind the plate. He is an adroit pitch-framer and game-caller with a strong arm, and also has good power at the plate, evidenced by 35 home runs over the past two seasons while playing for a team that plays home games in the majors’ least- friendly ballpark for right-handed hitters.
Murphy slashed .272/.345/.467 with 11 homers and an .812 OPS in 76 games away from the vastness of Oakland’s home park. He had a .250 overall average with 57 extra-base hits (18 homers), a .759 OPS and 120 OPS+ in 148 games, including 116 starts at catcher.
“Which is great, that’s part of the appeal — he’s a durable guy,” Anthopoulos said. “He was in the lineup a ton.”
Murphy had the second-highest fWAR (5.1) among major-league catchers behind Phillies star JT Realmuto, the player he’s drawn comparisons to in terms of arm strength, athleticism and all-around performance at a similar age.
Despite the Braves’ stated plan of having d’Arnaud and Murphy split catching duties, it should be noted that Murphy not only caught more games than any catcher except Realmuto, but how much better he hit while catching than when he was used as a designated hitter. Murphy started 30 games at DH and hit .179 with a .584 OPS in those games.
In the 116 games that he caught, Murphy hit .269 with 16 homers, an .805 OPS and a robust 142 OPS+.
Murphy is among baseball’s largest catchers at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, but has athleticism and fluid movements to go with his cannon-like arm. His average “pop” time (throwing to second base) of 1.89 seconds trailed only Realmuto’s 1.82, and Murphy threw out a solid 31 percent of would-be base stealers.
Murphy ranks among the majors’ best at framing, or “stealing strikes” as some refer to that skill.
“The Gold Glove speaks for itself,” Anthopoulos said, referring to Murphy’s Gold Glove in 2021, his first full season, after the former third-round draft pick played 20 games with Oakland in 2019 and finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020. “He can frame, he can block, he can throw.
“One of the most important things that we value quite a bit is, (Murphy) cares quite a lot about the prep and the advance. And that’s huge. Travis excels at that. And obviously the receiving side, the framing side, Travis excels at that as well.”
The hardest part for many Braves fans to swallow is the loss of Contreras, aka “Wild Bill,” who emerged from the shadow of older brother Willson, the former Cubs All-Star, to become a standout slugger in his own right in 2022. He made the most of his opportunity after Piña’s season-ending wrist surgery in early May.
Contreras, who’ll be 25 on Christmas Eve, was an All-Star starter at DH this year in his first full season, batting .278 with 20 homers and an .860 OPS in 97 games for the Braves, including 57 games at catcher and 31 at DH. He’s got tremendous power at the plate and made strides behind it both as a receiver and game-caller, although he still wasn’t as proficient in those areas as the Braves want from a primary catcher.
“It’s always hard to trade guys away,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s a rare opportunity to get a premium defensive player at a premium position. But it’s tough. We gave up a lot of really talented guys that we really like. But we look at Sean and how he fits with this core and this group, it’s just a really good fit. Now you combine him with Travis — we put so much stock into that position. The bar is very high for us. We’re very particular, very specific about who we target in a role like that, and this was about (Murphy), no doubt about it.
“That was the cost to get it done. We ultimately were willing, but no doubt it’s hard to give up the talent that we did.”
Muller was the next-biggest name the Braves parted with. Rated their No. 1 prospect last month by Baseball America, the 6-foot-7 lefty hovered around the top end of the Braves’ prospect lists for several years, his bouts with command issues undermining him each time he appeared to have a shot at sticking in the majors .
The hard-throwing Texan was likely to be only a spot starter in 2023, with the top four spots in their rotation already decided and with Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson heading a group of fifth-starter candidates that also includes Bryce Elder, who had a 3.17 ERA last season in 10 games (nine starts) as a rookie and already leapfrogged Muller in the view of some in the organization.
Tarnok, 24, was rated ninth among Baseball America’s Top 10 Braves prospects last month, after posting a 4.05 ERA in 25 games (23 starts) at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2022, with 124 strikeouts and 44 walks in 106 2/3 innings. He also made his MLB debut with an August relief appearance.
Yeager, who’ll be 25 in January, was a 33rd-round pick in the 2019 draft and had a 3.10 ERA in 49 relief appearances in 2022 at the High-A and Double-A levels, with 81 strikeouts and 32 walks in 52 1/3 innings.
Salinas, 21, had a 3.55 ERA in 25 starts in 2022 in Low A and High A, with an eye-opening 175 strikeouts along with 63 walks in 109 innings.
(Top photo of Sean Murphy: Jerome Miron / USA Today)