The Oakland A’s wanted two major league ready players for catcher Sean Murphy. The Braves were not going to trade Vaughn Grissom, who they want to 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 were no match. But on Tuesday, the Braves got Murphy anyway, parting ways with six players in a three-team trade. Contreras and major 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 replacing the second baseman that Oakland couldn’t get.
Two separate events helped the deal come together, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. 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 willingness of the Braves to send William Contreras to the Brewers in order to acquire center fielder Esteury Ruiz, a player the A’s had identified to clubs as one they wanted for Murphy. .
Ruiz, who turns 24 on February 15, was part of the Brewers’ return for Josh Hader at the trade deadline. Arriving 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 that base includes to enhance base stealing in 2023 – more bases, pick up and step away limits, pitch clock.
Why would the Brewers trade an athlete like that? Because in William Contreras, they are getting a different type of athlete, a 2022 All-Star they are confident their coaches can help improve on defense, even if the Braves seeing him as a catcher first. Why would Ruiz’s A’s value so much despite his lack of power? Because they love their pace and ability to play in the middle. 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 seeking a return from the Cardinals that included outfielder Lars Nootbaar, Gold Glove winner Brendan Donovan and young power pitcher Gordon Graceffo. However, another source briefed on the talks said the A’s wanted Nootbaar or Donovan in addition to Graceffo. The Cardinals weren’t willing to trade any of those players, and instead wanted the A’s to pick two from a group of four that included outfielder Dylan Carlson, second baseman Nolan Gorman, outfielder Alec Burleson and first baseman Juan Yepez.
When the teams couldn’t come to 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 the talent all young The Murphy trade evaluation, 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 contract in club history to a free agent from another club. And the questions don’t end there.
Was this deal necessary for the Braves? Did they give up too much? The answers won’t be immediately apparent, and could change if the Braves sign Murphy to one of their patent-pending long-term extensions. However, William Contreras, Piña and Travis d’Arnaud helped the team produce the highest OPS of any team’s catcher last season. Contreras, who bats right-handed but produces power opposite the field as a left-handed slugger, is under club control for another five years.
One of the interesting aspects of this deal is that the Braves are setting a high bar for their catchers defensively and see William Contreras as a Willson-like fit, only suited behind the plate. On the other hand, Brewers general manager Matt Arnold noted that Piña, Yasmani Grandal and Omar Narváez were going to be better defenders under the direction of the Milwaukee staff, indicating that he believes that they can for William to do the same.
The rest of the Brewers’ haul is less interesting. Payamps, one of the two pitchers they acquired, would likely 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 went unselected in the recent Rule 5 draft.
Muller, Tarnok and Salinas, the pitchers who went from the Braves to the A’s, are more respected. Muller was down on the Braves’ depth chart, and he probably wouldn’t 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, also, part of 40 Braves. -man roster, and the A’s see him as a potential 100-mph defender. 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 who wanted Murphy described the A’s return as, “meh,” adding that the messages from Oakland, “never amounted to anything but two of your favorites.” As is always true in baseball crafting, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And for the A’s, so much will depend on Ruiz.
If the LA’s had wanted William Contreras, they could have made this deal just with the Braves, not including the Brewers. But the A’s only entertained offers for Murphy at the trade deadline because they were dealing from a strong position 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 pick in 2020, and could end up at first base rather than catcher. Daniel Susac, the team’s 2022 first-round pick 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 position up the middle. He only appeared in three games for the Brewers during a weeklong call-up, but he made a good impression. “He’s very mature,” said one Brewers insider. “Billy Hamilton is quick with an aggressive swing and attitude at the plate. 60 to 70 base type stolen. Great in a short time. No doubt with MLB.”
On Monday, he was instrumental in a three-team, nine-player trade. The A’s believe he can be the catalyst for much more.
(Top photo of Sean Murphy: G Fiume/Getty Images)