Rosenthal: Inside the trade of Sean Murphy to Braves and the catalyst for the three-team deal

The Oakland A’s wanted two major-league-ready position players for catcher Sean Murphy. The Braves weren’t about to trade Vaughn Grissom, whom they are grooming to potentially replace free agent Dansby Swanson at shortstop. And the A’s didn’t need William Contreras, not after acquiring another catcher from the Braves, Shea Langeliers, in the Matt Olson trade nine months ago.

Effectively, the teams had no match. But on Tuesday, the Braves landed Murphy anyway, parting with six players in a three-team trade. Contreras and minor-league right-hander Justin Yeager went to the Brewers, along with reliever Joel Payamps from the A’s. Left-hander Kyle Muller, catcher Manny Piña, and minor-league righties Freddy Tarnok and Royber Salinas went to the A’s, with Muller substituting for the second position player Oakland was unable to acquire.

Two separate occurrences helped the deal come together, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The first was the Cardinals’ pivot away from Murphy to sign Contreras’ older brother, Willson Contreras, to a four-year, $87.5 million free-agent contract. The second was the Braves’ willingness to send William Contreras to the Brewers so they could access center fielder Esteury Ruiz, a player whom the A’s had identified to clubs as one they wanted for Murphy.

Ruiz, who turns 24 on Feb. 15, was part of the Brewers’ return for Josh Hader at the trade deadline. His arrival in Oakland could jeopardize the future of Cristian Pache, another player the A’s acquired in the Olson trade. Ruiz finished the season with a .447 on-base percentage in 541 plate appearances at Double A and Triple A. He also stole 85 bases in 99 attempts, and should benefit from the new rules baseball is introducing to enhance base stealing in 2023 — bigger bases, pickoff and step-off limits, a pitch clock.


Esteury Ruiz (Joe Camporeale / USA Today Sports)

Why would the Brewers trade such an athlete? Because in William Contreras, they are getting a different type of athlete, a 2022 All-Star they are confident their coaches can help improve defensively, even if the Braves viewed him more as a bat-first catcher. Why would the A’s value Ruiz so highly despite his lack of power? Because they love his speed and ability to play center. Because he improved his contact and walk rates last season. And because they never agreed on a trade with the Cardinals.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, citing a source, reported the A’s sought a return from the Cardinals that included outfielder Lars Nootbaar, Gold Glove-winner Brendan Donovan and a powerful young pitcher like Gordon Graceffo. However, another source briefed on the talks said the A’s wanted Nootbaar or Donovan plus Graceffo. The Cardinals were unwilling to trade any of those players, and instead wanted the A’s to choose two from a group of four consisting of outfielder Dylan Carlson, second baseman Nolan Gorman, outfielder Alec Burleson and first baseman Juan Yepez.

When the teams could not reach agreement, the Cardinals signed Willson Contreras, forfeiting their second-highest pick in the 2023 draft and $500,000 from their international bonus pool, but keeping all of their young talent. The evaluation of the Murphy trade, then, will include an analysis of whether the Cardinals would have been better off trading for three years of Murphy, 28, than signing Contreras, who turns 31 on May 13, to the largest deal in club history to a free agent from another club. And the questions won’t end there.

Was this deal necessary for the Braves? Did they give up too much? The answers will not be apparent immediately, and might change if the Braves sign Murphy to one of their patented long-term extensions. Still, William Contreras, Piña and Travis d’Arnaud helped the team produce the highest OPS at catcher of any team last season. Contreras, who bats right-handed but produces opposite-field power like a left-handed slugger, is under club control for five more years.

One of the fascinating aspects of this deal is that the Braves set a high bar for their catchers defensively and view William Contreras as similar to Willson, merely adequate behind the plate. Brewers general manager Matt Arnold, on the other hand, noted that Piña, Yasmani Grandal and Omar Narváez became better defenders under the tutelage of Milwaukee’s staff, indicating he believes William can do the same.

The rest of the Brewers’ haul is less intriguing. Payamps, one of the two pitchers they acquired, was likely to be designated for assignment by the A’s, who need to clear 40-man roster spots. Yeager, the other pitching addition, was left unprotected by the Braves and did not get selected in the recent Rule 5 draft.

Muller, Tarnok and Salinas, the pitchers who went from the Braves to the A’s, are more highly regarded. Muller was down on the Braves’ depth chart, and likely would have been out of options at the end of the season, but the A’s believe he has nothing left to prove at Triple A. Tarnok, too, was part of the Braves’ 40 -man roster, and the A’s see him as a potential 100-mph reliever. Salinas, more of a lottery ticket, struck out 175 in 109 innings last season at two levels of A ball.

One executive with another team that wanted Murphy described the A’s return as, “meh,” saying the messaging from Oakland was, “never volume but two of your best.” As is always the case in baseball trades, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And for the A’s, so much will depend on Ruiz.

If the A’s had wanted William Contreras, they could have made this deal straight-up with the Braves, without including the Brewers. But the A’s only started entertaining offers for Murphy at the trade deadline because they were dealing from a position of strength at catcher.

Langeliers is entering his first full season. Tyler Soderstrom, the A’s No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, was the team’s first-round pick in 2020, and could end up at first base rather than catcher. Daniel Susac, the team’s first-rounder in 2022 and No. 4 prospect, is further away from the majors, but likely to stay behind the plate.

Ruiz, meanwhile, could be the A’s long-term solution in center, another up-the-middle position. He appeared in only three games for the Brewers during a week-long call-up, but made a strong impression. “He’s really mature,” one Brewers person said. “Billy Hamilton fast with an aggressive swing and an idea at the plate. A 60 to 70 stolen-base type. Impressive in short stint. Unfazed by MLB.”

On Monday, he was the catalyst of a three-team, nine-player trade. The A’s think he can be the catalyst of much more.

(Top photo of Sean Murphy: G Fiume/Getty Images)

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