The Athletic

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

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

Indeed, the teams had no match. But on Tuesday, the Braves offloaded Murphy anyway, parting with six players in a three-team trade. Contreras and minor league right-hander Justin Yeager went to the Brewers, with reliever Joel Payamps of the A’s. Muller replacing the second position player that Oakland could not acquire.

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

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

Esteury Ruiz (Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports)

Why would the Brewers trade such an athlete? Because in William Contreras they’re getting a different kind of athlete, a 2022 All-Star, they’re confident their coaches can help improve defensively, even if the Braves viewed him more as an at-bat receiver. Why would the A’s place so much importance on Ruiz despite his lack of power? Because they like his speed and his ability to play in the middle. Because he improved his contact and walking rates last season. And because they never concluded an exchange with the cardinals.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, citing a source, reported that the A’s were seeking a return from the Cardinals which 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 didn’t want to trade any of those players and instead wanted the A’s to pick two from a four-man field consisting of outfielder Dylan Carlson, second baseman Nolan Gorman, outfielder Alec Burleson and first baseman Juan Yepez.

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

Was this deal necessary for the Braves? Have they given up too much? The answers won’t be immediately obvious and could 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 receiver of any team last season. Contreras, who hits right-handed but produces opposite-field power like a left-handed hitter, is under club control for five more years.

One of the fascinating things about this deal is that the Braves set the bar high for their receivers defensively and see William Contreras as similar to Willson, just adequate behind the plate. Brewers general manager Matt Arnold, meanwhile, noted that Piña, Yasmani Grandal and Omar Narváez have become better defenders under the tutelage of Milwaukee staff, indicating he believes William can do the same.

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

Muller, Tarnok and Salinas, the pitchers who went from the Braves to the A’s, are more popular. 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 to the Triple A. Tarnok, too , was one of 40 Braves. -man roster, and the A’s see him as a potential 100 mph reliever. Salinas, plus a lottery ticket, struck out 175 in 109 innings last season at two A-ball levels.

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

If the A’s had wanted William Contreras, they could have made that deal directly with the Braves, not including the Brewers. But the A’s didn’t start getting offers for Murphy until the trade deadline because they were in a strong position at receiver.

Langeliers is entering its first full season. Tyler Soderstrom, the A’s No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, was the team’s 2020 first-round pick and could end up at first base rather than receiver. 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 long-term solution for the A’s at centre, another midfield position. He only played three games for the Brewers in a week-long call-up but made a strong impression. “He’s really mature,” one person from Brewers said. “Billy Hamilton fast with an aggressive swing and an idea at home plate. A basic type volley from 60 to 70. Impressive in short passage. Unfazed by MLB.

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

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

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