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Trying To Make Sense Of The Sean Murphy Deal

MLB: SEP 03 Brewers at Diamondbacks
Get used to some “Esteury runs”!
Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s great to have knee-jerk reactions to a trade, and in fact as fans on the interwebs it is arguably our god given right. Then the dust clears and you think, “OK, these front offices have more information than I do and have done this ‘trade guys thing’ many times before. Perhaps I should try to figure out their thought process instead of just my initial feelings.”

In psychology this might be known as the “acceptance” stage that follows the anger and denial phases. And that is where this article finds us on a chilly but sunny Saturday in A’s-land...

Here’s what we know. While the trades between Oakland/Atlanta, and Oakland/Milwaukee, were intrinsically intertwined, they were made separately such that the Braves were willing to part with catchers William Contreras and and Manny Piña, along with pitchers Kyle Muller, Freddy Tarnok, and Royber Salinas (279 Ks in 181.1 career MiLB IP by the way), in order to land Murphy.

And we know that while no one lauded it as a steal of an overpay, Baseball Trade Values agreed that it was in the range of fair — yes you might hope the A’s could get a clear overpay for Murphy, but they did appear to get at least fair market value.

Then they turned around and swapped Contreras (along with reliever Joel Payamps) for Esteury Ruiz, the 23 year old who took off (probably for 2B on a successful steal attempt) as a prospect in 2022. This is the part of the deal that skewed the numbers, as BTV and seemingly everyone else had Contreras’ value leaps and bounds above Ruiz’.

Now the dealing of Contreras was a given. The A’s weren’t trading Murphy in order to land another catcher. The deal with the Braves was absolutely predicated upon the A’s knowing they could spin Contreras to the Brew Crew.

But while turning around and flipping Contreras in the same breath was a given, what wasn’t a given was the return back that would satisfy Oakland enough to consummate this 3-team deal (or another one with a different team in search of Contreras’ as their starting catcher).

This brings us to the talks between Oakland and Milwaukee. With a seemingly fair market swap lined up between the A’s and Braves, the two sides agreed on the simultaneous exchange of Contreras for Ruiz.

What that tells me is that despite valuations elsewhere, the A’s saw this as an even exchange. (Payamps has no appreciable positive or negative value and will be ceremoniously ignored from here on.) Hmm...interesting...

Contreras is a valuable asset, not at Murphy’s level but nonetheless he is a legitimate big league starting catcher in a market soft on good catchers. Some key numbers around Contreras:

- In 2022, he batted .278/.354/.506 (138 wRC+) in 97 games for the Braves.

- Contreras’ 2022 season yielded 2.4 WAR in less than 100 games, a pace that would have been worth over 3.0 WAR over a full season of catching, say, 130 games.

- Contreras has 5 more seasons of contract control (even Murphy only has 3), giving the Brewers his services through the 2027 season.

Knowing all this, the A’s felt that Esteury Ruiz alone was sufficient value for a 3.0+ starting catcher with 5 years left on his contract.

My conclusion? The A’s must think Esteury Ruiz is truly the real deal, that his 2022 MiLB season is reflective of who he is as a prospect and that meaningful changes and/or growth render his earlier work somewhat irrelevant.

And make no mistake about it, Ruiz’ resume prior to 2022 doesn’t scream “a centerpiece in a Sean Murphy trade”. In 2021 he batted .249/.328/.411 as a 22 year old in AA, stealing 36 bases while also being caught 7 times. I will call your “ho” and raise you a “hum”.

Then came 2022 and oh my. The batting line, in AA (49 games) and AAA (65 games) at age 23? .332/.447/.526, with 16 HR in 114 games and 85 SB in 99 tries. Ruiz may not be Rickey Henderson, but he did have a bit of a “Rickey Henderson season” in the minors last year.

A’s GM David Forst has said he envisions Ruiz, who has logged time at 2B, 3B, LF, and CF, playing CF for Oakland. Whether his 2022 profile reminds you more of Starling Marte or “some one-year minor league wonder,” suddenly the upside Ruiz possesses is evident.

The question, of course, is whether Ruiz can hit, or approach, the upside reflected in his 2022 performance at AA and AAA. The answer — really the only answer I am confident in giving today — is, “Apparently the A’s believe he can and will.”

Man, I hope they’re right.

One additional thought that revolves around the other key pieces the A’s acquired in the Murphy deal. It may appear as if they are redundantly stocking up on starting pitchers while continuing to ignore pressing organizational needs in the corner outfield and more generally at the plate.

Think of early trades as being similar to the MLB draft. You are well advised, in the draft, not to focus on positions of need but rather to take “best player available”. Presumably Ken Waldichuk, and behind him Mason Miller, are Oakland’s best hopes for “front of the rotation” SPs on a rebuilt contending A’s team.

Keep in mind that the A’s could, at any time, pivot and deal a starting pitcher or two from the group of Ryan Cusick, Joey Estes, J.T. Ginn, Hogan Harris, Gunnar Hoglund, Luis Medina, Kyle Muller, J.P. Sears, Freddy Tarnok, and Royber Salinas, in order to acquire a young outfielder who fits the A’s profile of need. And they would still have a pretty deep group of intriguing SP prospects coming up soon.

So while it’s a fair question as to whether guys like Muller, Salinas, and Tarnok were the right choices, it’s probably not a problem that Oakland’s upper levels now have so many SP prospects and still a barren outfield.

That being said, a historically inept offense isn’t going to get a Herculean boost from the likes of Jace Peterson and Aledmys Diaz so much work is still to be done.

Let’s do it!