The Atlanta Braves have a new bright young star ... at a position where nobody knew they needed a new bright young star.
While everyone’s attention has been on what, if anything, the Braves opt to do at shortstop, they pulled a stunner in landing Gold Glove-winning catcher Sean Murphy from the Oakland A’s in a three-team deal that also included the Milwaukee Brewers.
We’ll get into that trade and more. But first, let’s turn our attention back to that shortstop market, where the market has created contract terms that are boggling the mind.
1. The winter nobody saw coming
In May 2021, when the Los Angeles Angels released future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols — this before a renaissance in his twilight that saw him reach 700 home runs — he was seen as a cautionary tale against the mega contract, a vestige of the old way of thinking.
The game had gotten younger, teams were minimizing the risk on the back end, and deals for double-digit years that stretched into players’ 40s, were no longer the operating procedure.
But that 10-year deal would have been par for the course in a winter that nobody saw coming, one that has likely reshaped what the Braves have to do to address the biggest hole on the roster.
The San Francisco Giants and Carlos Correa agreed to a 13-year, $350-million contract — the exclamation point for the position that was to define this offseason — while the Philadelphia Phillies got Trea Turner for 11 years at $300 million and the San Diego Padres inked Xander Bogaerts for $280 million over 11 years.
Turner will be 40 when his deal runs out; Bogaerts and Correa will be 41. There have been 21 or more deals of 10 years or longer — with option years included — in MLB history, 13 of which have been signed in the past three years. Among those, only three take players into their fourth decades: Bogaerts, Correa and Turner.
The market has simply turned on its head. FanGraphs’ crowd source projections had Correa getting eight years, Turner seven and Bogaerts six, and the reality could have teams questioning the sanity of this run when we get to the latter years of these contracts.
Which brings us to the Braves.
Only Dansby Swanson remains from that star-studded shortstop class, and the market has dictated terms that are well beyond the $141 million over six years Swanson was projected to net, or the $96-$102 million over six seasons the Braves reportedly offered.
With club options, Matt Olson and Austin Riley will both be in Atlanta through their age-36 season, the deepest into a career that any of the Braves’ current extensions take a player. These 10-plus year deals rarely work out, and now baseball has made them the price of doing business. But if Swanson has double-figure year deals on the table from suitors that include the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, would Atlanta really be willing to match a deal that could take Swanson into his age-39 if not age-40 season?
We could have a whole collection of cautionary tales come out of the last two weeks, it’s just a matter if the Braves are going to be among them.
#BatteryPowerATL: Since 2017, the #Braves are third in catcher fWAR, but they've never had a combination like Sean Murphy and Travis d'Arnaud.— Battery Power (@BatteryPowerSBN) December 13, 2022
▶️ https://t.co/qEx1bavzbA pic.twitter.com/WNzmiEGqiV
2. Why Murphy was worth the cost
There are going to be some questions with the Sean Murphy trade, in which the Braves gave up a hefty sum — including their No. 1 prospect in Kyle Muller, their No. 6 in Freddy Tarnok and the No. 18 in Royber Salinas, along with William Contreras, Manny Piña and Justin Yeager — in the three-team deal with the Oakland A’s and Milwaukee Brewers to get the 28-year-old catcher.
Moving Contreras, a year after he was an All-Star in hitting 20 homers was a surprise, and the Braves’ pitching depth took a hit. Here’s why it was worth it.
Murphy is coming off a 5.1 fWAR season in which he hit 22 percent above league average, while also delivering 15.0 Defensive Runs Above Average. Since the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, there have been four seasons by a backstop that have been in line with those numbers: Brian McCann in 2008, 2010 and 2011 and Joe Torre in 1966.
That’s what the Braves just got, and with three years of control.
"From a defensive standpoint, we're getting a really strong player behind the plate who's got ability with the bat."— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) December 12, 2022
Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos on trading for Athletics catcher Sean Murphy pic.twitter.com/4KY5i49muW
3. What of Travis d’Arnaud’s future?
General manager Alex Anthopoulos disclosed his idea for how the partnership with Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud would work behind the plate, also saying that he’d discussed Monday’s trade with the incumbent catcher before it went down.
“Travis is here, he’s going to be here. He’s a huge part of our team,” Anthopoulos said. “We have playing time to go around between DH. Similar to what we had with Contreras, same type of deal. How it gets split up in terms of starts behind the plate, that’s up to (manager Brian Snitker). But especially at that position, you know you’re going to need fresh legs and we’ve got (designated hitter) at-bats as well. So, there’ll be plenty of playing time to go around.”
A year ago, Murphy caught 116 games, while d’Arnaud was behind the plate for 99. The Braves are no doubt stronger at the position with Murphy, it makes for a curious situation with two primary catchers.
Those DH at-bats help but considering d’Arnaud is under control for two years (with a club option for 2024) expect teams to come asking now that the Braves’ future is secure at the position. As Anthopoulos said, d’Arnaud is in the plans for 2023, but the acquisition of Murphy has clouded his role in things past this season.
4. The other side of the deal
William Contreras got a ring, an All-Star Game appearance and a nickname, and an unexpected exit after a breakthrough season in which he hit 20 homers with 138 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR.
The other side of the trade were in the tweets that Contreras sent out, first Monday with a series of broken hearts after news broke of his being dealt to the Brewers, and then Wednesday with more broken hearts and a message that (serious tip of the hat to Twitter’s translator) read “I did not expect to leave the Bravos organization in this way, but I am here thanking you for all the opportunities that they gave me, I knew how to make the most of them, thanks to the fans for giving me their support.”
— William Contreras (@Wcontreras42) December 12, 2022
THANKS BRAVES COUNTRY @braves no espere salir de esta manera de la organización de los bravos , pero estoy aquí agradeciendo por todas las oportunidades que me dieron , las supe aprovechar al máximo , gracias a los fanáticos por brindarme su apoyo pic.twitter.com/6RE6L8ClED— William Contreras (@Wcontreras42) December 14, 2022
He’s leaving the only organization he’s known, but Contreras figures to benefit in terms of playing time, immediately slotting in as the No. 1 option for Milwaukee, which was 19th in catcher ISO (.118) last year with 13 home runs.
“His bat is something that has a chance to be really special,” said Brewers GM Matt Arnold. “”I like the fact that he fits in our lineup immediately and hopefully he’s a Brewer and a productive one for a long time.”
There’s also his joining his brother Willson — who just signed with the St. Louis Cardinals — in the NL Central, and seeing him 13 times a year, but both of the main pieces in this deal (William Contreras and Murphy) improved their opportunities in the immediate future.
Alex Anthopoulos on Atlanta's shortstop situation ⤵️— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) December 12, 2022
"We're definitely not prepared to name the starting shortstop right now. There's still guys that are out there and available." pic.twitter.com/Qa3fWWNemV
5. Grissom drawing ‘raves’ from Washington
Anthopoulos was taken aback after talking to Braves infield guru Ron Washington about one of his Camp Wash sessions with Vaughn Grissom in New Orleans.
“I was surprised, because Wash isn’t the type to rave,” Anthopoulos said.
The Braves aren’t ready to name Grissom — or anyone else for that matter — the Opening Day shortstop, not with players still on the market, including Swanson. But that faith is at least a positive storyline if Atlanta does have to end up turning to Grissom in 2023.
There have been doubts that Grissom can play shortstop at the big-league level. He was 56th among second baseman last year, averaging 77.2 mph on his throws, a figure that would have made him 50th if he’d had the same metrics at short. Now, Grissom was playing out of position — as a primary shortstop — and maybe he’s taking something off a shorter throw, but those results, along with a negative Ultimate Zone Rating (-1.8) don’t scream everyday shortstop.
Maybe the work with Washington pays off, and at this point, why would we expect Anthopoulos to paint this picture as anything but positive? But it’s looking more and more likely that someone other than Swanson is going to play shortstop for the Braves in 2023, and right now, the smart money is on Grissom.
"With the Braves' payroll climbing...don't be shocked if we see a Max Fried trade this offseason."@jimcallisMLB breaks down the three-team trade completed yesterday, the crop of prospects heading to Oakland and what the deal means for Atlanta. #MLBNHotStove pic.twitter.com/xisSn2578s— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) December 13, 2022
6. Those Max Fried ‘rumors’
In the aftermath of the Murphy trade, MLB.com’s Jim Callis raised some eyebrows when he went on MLB Network and casually threw this out:
“With the Braves’ payroll climbing ... I’m hearing some Max Fried rumors on the block, Callis said. “Don’t be shocked if we see a Max Fried trade this offseason.”
That would be ... stunning. Fried has two years of control left before the left-hander would hit free agency as a 31-year-old, and the argument can be made that he’d never have more value on the market than he does now. If Atlanta doesn’t think it can resign him and doesn’t want to get into the business of a bidding war for a top-flight starter, then move him. But if the Braves are trying to capitalize on this window, are they really going to part with their ace?
There seems little justification for it right now, and it’s difficult to see any scenario where the Braves would be better positioned for a title run minus their kind of consistency Fried has provided.
Moving Fried seems incredibly unlikely, though we also didn’t think the Braves would be moving an All-Star catcher and two of their top six prospects to get another catcher.
7. Tyler Matzek clarifies status update
During an appearance on MLB Network Radio to discuss the acquisition of Murphy, Tyler Matzek also provided an update on his recovery from Tommy John surgery and raised some eyebrows when he said: “I’m on schedule, even ahead of schedule right now.”
He clarified a remark that he said was getting blown out of proportion, telling me what he meant was “he’s hitting his check points, even a couple of them early.”
So don’t jump the gun and think this means Matzek is going to be back on the mound before expected, after undergoing the procedure on his left elbow in October. He’s still going to be out for the full 12 to 18 months.
8. Welcome to No. 1 status, Jared Shuster
With Muller shipped to Oakland, the mantel of the Braves’ top prospect (per MLB Pipeline) moves to Jared Shuster, whose standing has been the biggest beneficiary of the dealings of the past two offseasons.
The 25th pick in the 2020 draft was eighth in the system to start the 2021 season, and to underscore the changes around him, the players ahead of him at that time were Cristian Pache (traded), Ian Anderson (graduated out of prospect standing), Drew Waters (traded), Shea Langeliers (traded), Braden Shewmake, Muller (traded) and Contreras (graduated from prospect standing, and then traded). Missing from that list is Tarnok, who had his own climb ahead of his being traded. While Shewmake is still in the organization, but he had his 2022 cut short in August with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Shuster’s ascension isn’t all about attrition. He pitched to a 3.29 ERA over 25 starts across Double-A and Triple-A, striking out 145 with 38 walks. That included an April start in which he fanned a career-high 12 with a Southern League record eight straight at-bats ending in a K.
Anderson, Mike Soroka and Bryce Elder will be among those vying for the fifth spot in the Braves’ rotation, but the 24-year-old Shuster — with the added pressure of that No. 1 ranking — could also be a factor.
9. Today in Braves history: A deal worth questioning
While we’re all in the mood for questioning deals, let’s take a trip back in time.
Imagine it’s 2020 — not that anyone really wants to go back to that year but go with it — and Ronald Acuña Jr. is coming off two seasons in which he was NL Rookie of the Year, and a top-five MVP finisher ... and the Braves trade him to the sub-.500 San Francisco Giants.
That’s basically what happened on this day in 1949 at that year’s Winter Meetings, when after a dozen or so conversations, the Giants got the Braves to trade them Alvin Dark — coming off two years in which he was ROY and a top-25 MVP vote-getter — and Eddie Stanky for Willard Marshall, Sid Gordon, Buddy Kerr and Sam Webb.
As the 1950 season started, it was the Braves that got off to a strong start beating the Giants by a combined 21-10 at the Polo Grounds, and The New York Times called the deal “an impulsive mistake.” That review took on a different tone when the Giants were in the World Series two years later and Dark was on his way to being a three-time All-Star for them.