The Guardians are among the teams in discussions with the A’s about Sean Murphy, reports Jon Morosi of MLB.com (on Twitter). The backstop is one of the more frequent trade targets of the offseason, and Morosi suggests Oakland could complete a deal by the end of the Winter Meetings next week.
Murphy is of interest to virtually every team seeking catching help. He has been a quality hitter throughout his three-plus seasons in the big leagues, showing solid power and plate discipline with roughly average bat-to-ball skills. Murphy tallied a career-high 612 plate appearances this past season, hitting .250/.332/.426 with 18 home runs and a personal-low 20.3% strikeout rate.
While that may not be an eye-popping slash line at first glance, it marked well above-average production once one accounts for the depressed offensive environment around the game and Oakland’s pitcher-friendly home ballpark. By measure of wRC+, Murphy was 22 percentage points better than the average batter. Those numbers look even better when comparing Murphy to his peers behind the plate. Catchers overall mustered a putrid .228/.295/.368 line in 2022. Murphy ranked seventh at the position (among those with 300+ plate appearances) in on-base percentage and finished tenth in slugging.
In addition to that quality performance at the dish, the Wright State product is regarded as an excellent defensive backstop. Statcast consistently pegs him as an above-average pitch framer. The possibility for an electronic strike zone in 2024 or beyond could take pitch framing out of the sport, but Murphy also possesses an elite arm. He cut down 31.1% of attempted basestealers, well above the 25% league mark. Statcast credited him with a 1.89 second pop time (average time to throw to second base), the fourth-best mark among 72 catchers with 10+ throws. He was only charged with two passed balls despite playing more than 1000 innings behind the dish, a workload that trailed only that of J.T. Realmuto.
Murphy’s well-rounded game makes him one of the sport’s better catchers, and his trade appeal is only enhanced by his affordability. He’s eligible for arbitration for three more seasons, and MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects him for a $3.5MM salary in 2023. The 28-year-old will earn successive boosts over the next couple years, but his arbitration salaries will remain well below his open market value if he continues to perform at his recent level.
That window of affordable control means the A’s aren’t under urgent contractual or financial pressure to move him. However, Oakland also looks at least a year away from being able to contend for a Wild Card spot. The A’s tore down their roster over the 2021-22 offseason to cut costs, and they finished 2022 with an AL-worst 60-102 record. Murphy’s trade value will only dwindle alongside his remaining window of club control, and the A’s could seize the opportunity to move him for a massive return in the coming weeks or months.
Doing so would allow the A’s to give a full season of catching reps to top prospect Shea Langeliers. Acquired from the Braves in the Matt Olson trade last spring, Langeliers hit .283/.366/.510 through 92 games with Triple-A Las Vegas. He showed some power but also concerning strikeout and walk numbers in his first big league look late in the season. The former top ten draftee is regarded as a possible plus defender in his own right, and while the A’s could theoretically have Murphy and Lanegliers split catching and designated hitter duties, doing so would negate the defensive value of one of those players each game.
Cleveland places a premium on catcher defense, having turned primarily to Austin Hedges over the past few seasons. Hedges rivals Murphy defensively but offers virtually nothing with the bat. He’s coming off a .163/.241/.248 line and hit free agency at the end of the season. Cleveland could certainly look to bring him back, but acquiring Murphy would keep the club’s excellent defense intact while adding a possible middle-of-the-order bat. Murphy has even platoon numbers over the course of his career, but his right-handed bat would be an ancillary bonus for a Cleveland lineup that skews left-handed. The Guardians had a .646 OPS against southpaws this past season, a mark that topped only those of the Marlins and A’s.
As things currently stand, the only catchers on Cleveland’s 40-man roster are Bo Naylor and Bryan Lavastida. Each player made his MLB debut in 2022 and they have a combined 11 games of big league experience. Lavastida had a rough offensive showing in the upper minors and could fit better as a depth option.
Naylor, who turns 23 in February, is a more highly-regarded prospect who’s coming off a .257/.366/.514 line in 66 games at Triple-A Columbus. He could be a regular, but prospect evaluators have raised some concerns about his defense. At the very least, adding a veteran complement to that duo will be on the to-do list for president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and his staff. The Guardians could look to experiment with Naylor at other positions if they pull off a Murphy trade, and there’s also the possibility Cleveland includes him as part of the package they’re dangling to the A’s.