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Should the Diamondbacks trade for Sean Murphy?

Jesse Friedman Avatar
December 7, 2022

SAN DIEGO — The Diamondbacks did not make a trade at the Winter Meetings, but they did make plenty of phone calls. According to a report from the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro, one of them was to the Oakland A’s to discuss a trade for catcher Sean Murphy.

In 2022, Murphy slashed .250/.332/.426 with 18 homers and 66 RBI in 612 plate appearances. He also ranked third among all MLB catchers in fWAR at 5.1, trailing only the Philadelphia Phillies’ JT Realmuto and the Baltimore Orioles’ Adley Rutcschman. Defensively, Murphy is well-regarded, having won a Gold Glove in 2021 and ranking among the league leaders in pitch framing in 2022.

The Diamondbacks’ interest in Murphy initially may seem like an odd fit, given that Carson Kelly is still under team control for two more seasons. Kelly had a down year in 2022, but was one of the better catchers in the game in 2019 and 2021. He could bounce back in 2023.

Even if he does, Murphy has established himself as an elite catcher, and the consensus around the league is that the A’s are all but certain to deal him. The D-backs are not the only team showing interest, however, and the cost to acquire Murphy will be high. Here are three reasons in favor and two against.

In favor: Murphy is better than you think

Murphy might not have as much name credibility as other catchers in the game, but his third-place finish in fWAR in 2022 is no joke. While his aforementioned .250/.332/.426 batting line does not scream superstar, there are a few important factors to consider.

First, he plays half his games at the Coliseum in Oakland — one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball. That means neither triple-slash lines nor OPS are reliable measurements of performance.

Using park-adjusted statistics instead, Murphy graded out as roughly a top-50 hitter in baseball. Based on his wRC+, his offensive value in 2022 was very similar to that of Justin Turner, Christian Walker, Josh Bell and Rhys Hoskins.

Second, Murphy has long been regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. He caught nearly 32 percent of would-be base stealers (league average is around 25 percent) in 2022, and he ranked sixth in catcher framing runs. His defense is good enough that he would be a starting-caliber catcher even if his bat were below-average.

Given the rarity of catchers who are above-average on both sides of the ball, Murphy is a rare breed.

Against: Murphy has three years of club control remaining

For the Diamondbacks, the biggest con of trading for Murphy is the fact that he is only under team control through 2025. That is not necessarily too low for general manager Mike Hazen, but for a trade that requires sending out one of the team’s promising young players — it’s right on the edge.

‘We’ve talked about some guys that have less than that. It’s harder for me to see us doing that,” Hazen said. “But yeah, I think three [years] or above, we’ve engaged in those markets pretty aggressively.”

One could argue that trading for Sean Murphy is only worthwhile if the Diamondbacks feel strongly that they can contend in the next three seasons. With mathematical projections already pegging the team for around 84 wins in 2023, being in the thick of the playoff race by 2025 is not necessarily far-fetched.

That’s just a number at the end of the day, though, and the D-backs have a lot of work to do to get there. More than anything, they’ll need to improve their bullpen. And no matter what they do, their reliance on young, unproven players means their range of outcomes is wider than that of other teams. The ceiling is quite high, but the floor is relatively low.

In a sense, trading for a player with three years of club control would speak volumes about the Diamondbacks’ belief in their young core. Like Murphy, Zac Gallen is also set to become a free agent after the 2025 season. Dealing for Murphy might only increase the urgency to push the chips in over the next three years before Murphy and Gallen have the opportunity to leave as free agents.

In favor: Elite catchers are in short supply

When it comes to MLB catchers in 2022, there is the elite few, and then there is everyone else. Murphy is one of the elite few.

In 2022, only five catchers finished the year as qualified hitters (meaning they averaged 3.1 plate appearances per team game): Murphy, Realmuto, Alejandro Kirk, Will Smith and MJ Melendez. Catchers reaching 500 plate appearances in modern baseball is nearly unheard of.

There are two main factors at play there, the first of which is that catchers wear down significantly faster than players playing other positions. Teams have known that for a long time, but they’ve become progressively more careful over the years.

With the addition of the designated hitter to the National League, not catching doesn’t have to mean not playing. The problem is that catchers don’t tend to hit well, either. In 2022, the combined slash line of all catchers in baseball was just .226/.295/.367.

Murphy is one of few bucking these trends. On one hand, he was one of baseball’s most durable catchers in 2022, logging more innings behind the dish than any catcher in the game outside of Realmuto. On the other, his offense was roughly 20 percent better than a league-average hitter and roughly 35 percent better than a league-average catcher. Given the scarcity of catchers who can do what Murphy does, his marginal value to a team is arguably higher than his raw stats suggest.

Against: The Diamondbacks would have to part with one of their coveted young outfielders

Throughout the Winter Meetings, Hazen has openly acknowledged that the majority of trade discussions the team has engaged in have centered around the team’s young outfielders. It is all but certain the Diamondbacks would have to trade one in a deal for Murphy.

After Corbin Carroll — who isn’t going anywhere — Daulton Varsho is the next most valuable outfielder on the team. However, the fact that Varsho qualified as a super two player means he is arbitration eligible a year early and his salary will escalate more quickly as a result. Varsho has four years of club control, which is one more than Murphy but could be too little for a rebuilding team like the A’s.

With that in mind, centering the deal around Jake McCarthy or Alek Thomas would likely make more sense for Oakland. They are younger, cheaper and under team control for six years instead of four. Thomas’ recent history as a top-ranked prospect would seem to suggest that his trade value is higher than McCarthy’s, but Hazen said on Tuesday that there is some variance in how other teams evaluate the D-backs’ crop of outfielders.

Considering what appears to be a robust market for Murphy, the D-backs could end up in a bidding war of sorts if conversations escalate. Depending on how the A’s value McCarthy and Thomas, an additional prospect or two might be needed to complete the deal. But what else could the D-backs offer?

Beyond left-handed hitting outfielders, the team also has a wealth of pitching prospects who have either reached the majors or are only a step or two away in the upper levels of the minors. That list includes Tommy Henry, Drey Jameson, Ryne Nelson, Blake Walston, Brandon Pfaadt, Slade Cecconi and Bryce Jarvis. Including one of those guys might be necessary to get a deal done.

Hazen, however, said that it would be difficult for the D-backs to part with one of their young pitchers because of how much they value young starting pitching internally and the depth that group provides for the big-league starting rotation.

In a deal for Murphy, though, he might not have a choice. According to a report from Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the A’s asked for promising young outfielder Lars Nootbaar, 2022 Gold Glove winner Brendan Donovan and a young power pitcher from the Cardinals in exchange for Murphy. That asking price is what led the Cardinals to sign free-agent catcher Willson Contreras instead.

For the Diamondbacks, a trade package centered around Thomas and one of the team’s young starters would pale in comparison to the A’s reported asking price from St. Louis. One could argue that Nootbaar or Donovan alone has more value than Thomas. The A’s price could come down over time, of course. It’s hard to see how a deal would come together — for the Diamondbacks or any other team — if they don’t.

Whatever a trade would look like, it is a near certainty that the D-backs would lose multiple players whose big-league impact would last through 2028 and beyond. That’s a significant price to pay for a player whose tenure in Arizona could be limited to three seasons.

In favor: Murphy might be the best player the Diamondbacks can realistically acquire this winter

Here’s a quick homework assignment for you (if you’re a nerd like me): Go take a look at all MLB players with five or more WAR in 2022 and three or more years of team control remaining, and try to find one that the Diamondbacks could realistically acquire in a trade. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one other than Murphy.

The reality is that, if the Diamondbacks are going to trade an outfielder, Murphy might be the best player they can get. Granted, that’s not the same as saying he is necessarily their best trade target; only having three years of control, as discussed earlier, is still a significant drawback. But if the Diamondbacks choose to prioritize talent over years of impact, Murphy could move the needle like no other.

In a hypothetical trade centered around Murphy and Thomas, the Diamondbacks could field a lineup that looks something like this (in no particular order):

  • Sean Murphy, C
  • Christian Walker, 1B
  • Ketel Marte, 2B
  • Nick Ahmed, SS
  • Josh Rojas, 3B
  • Jake McCarthy, LF
  • Daulton Varsho, CF
  • Corbin Carroll, RF
  • Kyle Lewis, DH

No, it’s still not a perfect lineup. Recent injury issues raise significant questions about the futures of Ahmed and Lewis, in particular. However, with perhaps one more outside addition, it has the makings of one of the best position player groups in the big leagues. It is hard to overstate the impact Murphy could have in Arizona.

If a deal is going to happen, don’t necessarily count on it happening any time soon. The trade market has yet to develop league-wide. However, Hazen said on Wednesday that the details of potential deals “have become much more specific.” No trade is imminent, for Murphy or otherwise, but landing a player of Murphy’s caliber could — on paper — catapult the Diamondbacks to the brink of the NL playoff picture.

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Top photo: Kelley Cox/USA TODAY Sports

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