The Mariners’ trade for Tom Murphy a little over a year ago didn’t turn heads. Murphy had once been a notable prospect in the Rockies’ organization, but the shine had seemingly worn off. He saw sporadic action for Colorado between 2015-18, but his .219/.271/.439 line in 210 cumulative plate appearances was underwhelming. Even more disheartening, the Rockies themselves seemingly soured on him. Over those four seasons, the club gave more playing time to all of Tony Wolters, Nick Hundley, Chris Iannetta and Dustin Garneau, en route to largely underwhelming results. Even amidst that suboptimal situation, Murphy didn’t earn himself a long look.
The out-of-options Murphy bounced from the Rockies to the Giants on waivers last spring. After San Francisco decided he wasn’t in line to make the active roster, they shipped him to Seattle for a minimal return (minor-league pitcher Jesus Ozoria). That might have been a coup.
Murphy shined in 2019, his most extensive action to date. He and Omar Narváez quietly combined for a 121 wRC+, the best offensive production by a catching tandem in MLB. Murphy was a big part of that, having hit .273/.324/.535 (126 wRC+) with 18 home runs in 281 plate appearances. Unlike the bat-first Narváez, Murphy also rated well defensively. He drew plaudits from Baseball Prospectus for his blocking and pitch framing, while his 39% caught stealing rate was well above-average. All told, he rated as a top 25 defender at the position by both Defensive Runs Saved and BP’s Fielding Runs Above Average.
Pairing huge power production with above-average defense, Murphy was one of the game’s most valuable catchers last season. His 3.2 fWAR ranked fifth at the position, trailing J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, Mitch Garver and Christian Vázquez. Of that group, only fellow breakout slugger Garver logged a partial season’s worth of playing time as Murphy did.
It’s unlikely Murphy will maintain that level of production moving forward, as there are some red flags in his offensive profile. His .340 BABIP masked a 31% strikeout rate. That’ll almost certainly regress moving forward, particularly given Murphy’s fly-ball heavy approach and below-average speed. He’s also never been one to draw many walks, and that continued even amidst his power barrage. But even if Murphy ends up a low-OBP hitter, there’s plenty to like about the profile.
The right-handed hitter drew plaudits for his raw power as a prospect. While the baseball composition no doubt played some role in his home run frenzy, he hits the ball hard and frequently gets it in the air. He’s a strong bet to hit for much more power than is typical of the position. And Murphy’s 71.1% contact rate, while below-average, isn’t catastrophic. Skeptical Mariners’ fans could have visions of Mike Zunino. Zunino, though, never connected on more than 67.4% of his swings in a season. There are some similarities in the players’ general profiles, but Murphy already makes more contact than Seattle’s former catcher ever has.
The 29-year-old looks like a potential core piece of the Mariners’ rebuild. Narváez has been traded away, so Murphy has his clearest path to playing time yet (although Austin Nola was expected to be a highly-utilized #2 before the shutdown). Controlled through 2023, he’s squarely within the club’s anticipated contention window.