Braves acquire Oakland Gold Glove catcher Sean Murphy in three-team trade

Sean Murphy of the Oakland Athletics hits a two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning against the Minnesota Twins at RingCentral Coliseum on May 17, 2022, in Oakland, California. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Sean Murphy of the Oakland Athletics hits a two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning against the Minnesota Twins at RingCentral Coliseum on May 17, 2022, in Oakland, California. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images/TNS)

At the start of last week’s winter meetings in San Diego, Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos shot down a rumor saying his team was the front-runner to land Sean Murphy in a trade. The Braves, he said, were not engaged with Oakland about a trade for Murphy.

But Anthopoulos included a caveat: The Braves would remain open-minded to any deal, at any position, that would improve their club.

And, as it turned out, the Braves simply were not in on Murphy AT THE TIME.

Six days after Anthopoulos cleared up the rumors, the Braves and Athletics gained traction on a trade. On Monday, they completed it.

Despite having three catchers – about which he seemed genuinely excited – Anthopoulos acquired Murphy, a Gold Glove catcher, in a three-team, nine-player trade with Oakland and Milwaukee. The Braves sent six players out of Atlanta in the deal, including catchers William Contreras and Manny Piña.

The Braves must resolve their shortstop situation. They could upgrade in left field. Perhaps they can improve their starting rotation.

But catcher?

They had three of them – though none were as good as Murphy, who is one of the best all-around catchers in the sport. He will presumably start ahead of Travis d’Arnaud, who will still see plenty of playing time.

“We knew that was a position of strength,” Anthopoulos said on a Zoom call Monday evening. “The issue is you can’t decide when players become available. And you can sit there and say, ‘Well, we don’t have a need in ‘23, so let’s pass.’ But you may not have access to that player again. So ultimately, you know, this was the time to get him.”

The Braves got the 28-year-old Murphy, who has three years of control and won’t become a free agent until after the 2025 season.

To Oakland, the Braves sent left-hander Kyle Muller, right-hander Royber Salinas, right-hander Freddy Tarnok and Piña. The Athletics also acquired outfielder Esteury Ruiz from the Brewers.

To Milwaukee, they sent Contreras and right-hander Justin Yeager. The Brewers also received right-hander Joel Payamps from the Athletics.

“We definitely gave up a ton,” Anthopoulos said, “but we’re getting a really good player back.”

Since his first full season in the majors in 2020, Murphy has compiled 10 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs, which ranks second among catchers behind the Phillies’ J.T Realmuto (12.6 WAR). Last season, Murphy’s 5.1 WAR led the American League and was the second-best mark for a catcher.

In 2022, Murphy hit .250 with a .759 OPS. He blasted 18 home runs and drove in 66 runs. He led all AL primary catchers in hits, doubles, RBIs and total bases, and finished second in homers and runs scored. Murphy also features an above-average hard-hit rate and good top-end exit velocity figures, and could have better numbers hitting at Truist Park than he did at the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum.

According to Baseball Savant, his pop time to second base – the time from the moment a pitcher hit his mitt to the moment the fielder is expected to receive his throw at a base on steal or pickoff attempts – ranked in the 96th percentile in the sport last season. He is also great at framing pitches.

Murphy threw out 19 baserunners last season, tied for fifth most in the big leagues. His 31.1% caught stealing percentage was the third-best mark in baseball among catchers with as many attempts. He also caught 116 games last season, which led the AL and showed his durability.

“We’re getting a really strong player behind the plate. He’s got ability with the bat. But no doubt his calling card is his glove,” Anthopoulos said.

The Braves’ interest in Murphy might have started when they connected with Oakland while trading for Matt Olson. “You’re always looking at rosters and teams,” Anthopoulos said. “You know Sean Murphy is a really good player, so we obviously were aware of it.” But Murphy was not a fit for the Braves, who had other needs at the time. As it turned out, the Braves received incredible production from d’Arnaud and Contreras as both became All-Stars.

The Braves then checked in on Murphy at the beginning of this offseason. Once again, the sides weren’t a match.

On Saturday, however, a scenario arose for the Braves to acquire Murphy in a three-team trade. They worked on a potential deal into Monday, when they finally executed it and landed Murphy.

“As much as it wasn’t a need for ‘23, with the three years of control and so on and everything he brings, it’s a really good player to acquire; he was a good fit for our club,” Anthopoulos said. “We were going to try to find a way to make the deal work.”

To acquire Murphy, the Braves dealt one promising young catcher, a veteran catcher and several talented prospects. Anthopoulos, who has dipped into his farm system in trades this offseason and last, has a great track record of not being burned in trades since taking the job in Atlanta.

Contreras, who isn’t a free agent until after the 2027 season, hit 20 homers and posted an .860 OPS. He has made strides with his defense, but it must still improve.

Muller was Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect on MLB Pipeline, while Tarnok (No. 6) and Salinas (No. 18) were also part of the top 20. Piña, a backup on the Braves along with Contreras, will make $4.5 million in 2023.

Had he stayed in the organization, Muller would’ve competed for the fifth starter spot (if Anthopoulos didn’t add to the rotation). He might’ve made starts for the Braves in 2023. The Braves weren’t certain what role Tarnok, who debuted last season, would play.

Salinas, 21, might be the name to watch here. Across Low-A and High-A last season, he posted 14.45 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.

“Big arm, big stuff, a lot of swing and miss,” Anthopoulos said. “Big upside. I know he’s not a big name right now, but we like him a lot. Talent is certainly there.”

Murphy didn’t come cheap. But this is the cost of acquiring an elite talent with multiple years of control.

“It’s always hard to make trades, it’s always hard to trade guys away,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s just a rare opportunity to get a premium defensive player at a premium position. But it’s tough. I mean, 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, with this group, it’s just a really good fit.

“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. This was about him, no doubt about it. You’d love to give up less in these trades. You’re trying to get a really good player that other people want as well.”

If healthy, Murphy will almost certainly be the starter. But d’Arnaud will still receive a lot of playing time because Murphy won’t start every game and d’Arnaud can be the designated hitter if he isn’t catching. Anthopoulos said d’Arnaud will still be a “key part” of the club.

In the spring, the Braves traded Shea Langeliers to Oakland in the Olson deal. Now Contreras is gone. And yet, the Braves might be better off at catcher because Murphy is considered one of the game’s top backstops.

Anthopoulos possesses a special ability to formulate and execute his vision. Where and when others zig, he zags. You might think you know what he may do to improve his club at a given point in time, but he always reminds you of something.

You do not. He’s always a candidate to do something unexpected.

Entering the offseason, all eyes were on Dansby Swanson’s free agency and the potential hole he could leave if he departed Atlanta. The Braves could also use another outfielder. Perhaps they still try to improve their rotation.

But the Braves had talent and depth at catcher, and you probably weren’t thinking they would trade for somebody like Murphy.

And then …

“All of the sudden,” Anthopoulos said, “there was a path to get him where it still made sense for our team.”