A Cheap And Controllable Catcher That Could Be Available At The Deadline

On MLBTR’s recent list of trade candidates, the top name was a catcher, Willson Contreras. There are lots of reasons to expect he will be moved in the coming weeks, as he’s an impending free agent who is playing well for a bad team. There’s always the chance of the Cubs working out an extension to keep him, but based on the way Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo were all dealt last year, it seems reasonable to expect that Contreras is following them out of town.

MLBTR’s Steve Adams recently took a look at the potential fits, finding the Astros, Mets, Rays and Giants as the most likely, though listing plenty of other teams that make sense to some degree. Only one of them will get Contreras, however, leaving those other teams with issues behind the plate and having to consider other options. The only other catcher to crack MLBTR’s list was down at #41: Sean Murphy of the Athletics.

Though Contreras and Murphy are both catchers, there are many ways in which their situations are different. While Contreras is a rental and earning a $9.625MM salary this year, Murphy has yet to reach arbitration and still has three years of cheap control remaining. Contreras is also considered a bat-first catcher whereas Murphy has generally earned more praise for the defensive side of his game.

There are plenty of reasons for the A’s to hold onto Murphy, which is why he was so much lower on the MLBTR rankings than Contreras. Though the A’s have traded away many core players in the past year, those were guys who had come close to free agency and made themselves more expensive through arbitration. Murphy is still cheap and controllable, not to mention talented. He picked up a Gold Glove award last year for his excellent defense and was considered the third best catcher in the majors by the Fielding Bible Awards voting, behind Jacob Stallings and Austin Hedges. He’s also no slouch at the plate, with a career batting line of .229/.316/.423. That amounts to a wRC+ of 108, or 8% above league average. This year, his line is a smidge below that pace, coming in at .241/.308/.409, but that’s still a wRC+ of 106. His walk rate is a bit below his previous levels, but he’s also striking out less. That above-average batting line, when combined with his excellent defense, has allowed him to produce 2.3 wins above replacement on the year already, according to FanGraphs.

So, why even consider trading him then? For one thing, they could surely ask for a haul in return, given all those aforementioned attributes. There’s also the position of the team, who are currently 32-61, the worst record in the American League and ahead of only the Nationals among all teams in the majors. They’re certainly not competitive now and it’s hard to imagine them completely remaking themselves fast enough to suddenly become competitors again in 2023. Even if they feel 2024 is realistic, Murphy will be in his penultimate year of control by then, the same situation that players like Matt Olson and Matt Chapman were in when they were traded this offseason.

There’s also another factor to consider, which is that the A’s have one of the best catching prospects in baseball knocking on the door of the big leagues. Acquired in the Olson trade, Shea Langeliers is considered the #83 prospect in the sport by Baseball America, #52 by FanGraphs, #81 by ESPN, #80 by The Athletic and #31 by MLB Pipeline. Like Murphy, he is considered a glove-first catcher, but still hits at an above-average rate. This year, in 74 Triple-A games, he’s hit 16 home runs, stolen five bases and walked in 11.8% of his plate appearances. His batting line of .272/.364/.505 amounts to a 115 wRC+, or 15% above league average. He recently represented the American League in the 2022 Futures Game, earning MVP honors after hitting a home run and throwing out an attempted base stealer.

Langeliers is now 24 years old, turning 25 in the offseason. If the A’s were able to find an offer on Murphy that they liked, they could pull the trigger on a deal and let Langeliers have the final two months of the season to get acquainted with the big league pitching staff and life in the big leagues generally, going into the offseason with the torch already passed. The A’s reportedly considered dealing Murphy this past offseason, and that was before Langeliers had been acquired.

The club’s catching depth doesn’t stop there, as they also have Tyler Soderstrom in the system. He also shows up on all five of those aforementioned prospect lists, ahead of Langeliers in each case. However, there are some question marks there, as he is still just 20 years old, playing in High-A and predicted to move out from behind the plate down the line. (He’s played more first base than catcher this year.)

For a team looking to add a catcher, Murphy might be more appealing than Contreras due to his extra control. The Guardians, for instance, have Austin Hedges as their primary catcher right now. He is an impending free agent and is hitting just .172/.227/.270 this year. As a team that’s 2 1/2 games back of the Wild Card, they might not want to give up prospects for a rental like Contreras, and might also balk at his salary given their low-payroll ways. Acquiring Murphy, however, would allow them to upgrade on Hedges for a postseason push this year but also three more seasons. The Marlins recently acquired Jacob Stallings to be their backstop, though he’s having a terrible year at the plate and is turning 33 this winter. They’re 5 1/2 games out of the playoffs right now and would likely not be interested in rentals. The Twins recently put Ryan Jeffers on the IL and aren’t expecting him back for a couple of months. That leaves them with impending free agent Gary Sanchez as their primary catcher. Perhaps they’d consider a Sanchez-Murphy tandem now that leads into a Murphy-Jeffers pairing next year. Christian Vazquez is having a nice season for the Red Sox, but both he and backup Kevin Plawecki are heading into free agency in a few months. Acquiring Murphy could spare them worrying about their catching situation in an offseason when they might also lose J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Nathan Eovaldi. They’re also just outside the playoffs right now, two games back, and would surely prefer non-rentals.

Murphy is in a little bit of trade candidate limbo right now, as the same things that make him appealing to other teams will make the A’s want to hang onto him. However, if some team steps up and places a striking offer in front of them, the presence of Langeliers could allow them to stay strong behind the plate while stockpiling talent for other areas of the roster. Given his three remaining years of control, they don’t have to make a trade between now and the August 2 deadline. They could wait until the offseason and take their time looking for the best deal. However, there might be other sellers who join them at that point, such as the Blue Jays, who will have to figure out their logjam of Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, Zack Collins and Gabriel Moreno. The emergence of William Contreras gives the Braves a future surplus, as they also have Travis d’Arnaud and Manny Pina under contract for next year. (Pina is out for the rest of this year, meaning it’s not an issue now.) Tom Murphy is also done for the year but has one season of team control remaining. Maybe the M’s consider moving him in the winter, as Cal Raleigh has taken over and is having a breakout campaign. There’s lots of uncertainty in that future, but for the next couple of weeks, the A’s have the best and perhaps only non-rental catcher available. Although they don’t have to make a deal in the coming days, it’s possible that it’s actually the best time.

Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.

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