The Cardinals were the 27th best team in baseball at catcher last year. And frankly, I don’t know what the Rockies, Angels or Reds did at catcher, because I struggle to see how they ranked that high with -0.6 fWAR on the season. Yadier Molina, now retired, led the team with 0.1 fWAR. Neither Ivan Herrera or Austin Romine played well in their 11 games each and Andrew Knizner was both bad at hitting and really bad at defending. Thus, their low placement.
There are two expensive options to improve at catcher, one in money and one in prospects. Willson Contreras can be had for just money and to be honest, he’s not going to command the type of big dollars the Cardinals like to avoid, so maybe they’ll try the path of least resistance. As for the other option, they could also use some of their excess prospect depth to find the cheaper in money option and use the remaining money to upgrade other parts of their team. That’s where Oakland Athletics’ catcher Sean Murphy comes in.
It’s not clear that Murphy is available to be clear. It’s just speculation because he is entering his first year of arbitration. The Athletics went 60-102 and are in full rebuild. Murphy may very well still be under team control for the next good A’s team, but the Athletics are more likely to trade him with his increasing salary than hold onto him for that chance. The longer they wait, the worse the return.
On the other hand, he’s still making a manageable amount of money for a team like the Athletics - his projected salary is just $3.5 million - and they have all the reasons in the world to be patient and wait for an offer to blow them away. This is not the type of trade where they are taking the best offers, they probably have a value in mind that the opposing team will need to cross in order to make the trade. Probably something that, by the numbers, would be called an overpay. I don’t think a trade will happen for that reason, at least by the Cardinals.
But in the interest of curiosity, I wanted to see exactly what would be required to trade for Murphy. It’s a little tricky because we don’t have a 2023 projection for Murphy yet, though I will attempt to place a value on him. His original 2022 ZiPS projection was 2.8 fWAR. He blew that out of the water this year with 5.1 fWAR. They projected a .737 OPS and he improved on that with a .759 OPS and that was in a year where the league offense went down. If he actually had a .737 OPS, his performance relative to the league would still be better than his projection.
One of the main reasons he beat his projection was a huge decline in strikeout rate. He had an original projection of 26.7%. In 2022, his K rate was 20.1%. That was pretty much it, with a similar BB rate, slightly less power, and a slightly higher BABIP. With pretty much just less strikeouts and the lower offensive environment he was being compared to, his offensive wRC+ beat his projection by a lot. It was 106, and he finished with a 122 wRC+. We know his floor for a projection is a 2.8 WAR, but we also know it’ll be higher.
Necessary context for that 2.8 WAR though - ZiPS didn’t project that many plate appearances. Because his career high was 448. That’s partially because the shortened season was his first season and the 448 in question was the only really full year. They projected 386 plate appearances. He had 612 plate appearances. I don’t think ZiPS is going to course correct enough to where he’ll surpass 500 PAs in his projection, since you know, he still will only have one season with more than 500 PAs. So I’m putting the projection at 486 plate appearances. Exactly 100 more than ZiPS originally projected.
When you factor in a slight downtick in offense (as you would expect ZiPS to do) and factoring in the plate appearances, I have Murphy has a 3.8 WAR projected player. We’ll round up and call him a 4 WAR player. That seems reasonable to me. It might not to the Athletics. So he’s a 4 WAR player with 3 years of team control and three years of reduced salaries due to arbitration. The Cardinals will have to pony up.
The value, now that the hard part is done, is pretty easy. A 4 WAR player in projection terms will be a 3.5 WAR player the year after that and a 3 WAR player the year after that. Normally, I might assume he’d be a 4 WAR player for all three years given he’ll be 28, 29, and 30. But he’s a catcher and each year further away is another year where he might get injured. It seems completely fair to factor that into this in a way that it might not for an outfielder. That is $94.5 million in value.
Arbitration somehow only values a 5 WAR player as a $3.5 million player, which even for first arbitration is way too low. But MLB trade rumors is eerily accurate about this stuff, so we have to assume that’s how he’s valued in arbitration. If that holds true, his value for his 2nd year will be about $5.6 million and 3rd year $8.7 million. This feels absurdly low to me. Anyway, that’s $17.8 million until he’s a free agent. On the market, that’s $76.7 million in value. Oh boy. I don’t think this trade is happening guys.
Anyway, I think any trade is going to include Ivan Herrera. That seems like a no brainer place to start. How to value him is another matter. MLB dot com has him as the #47 prospect. Fangraphs has him at #71. Baseball America doesn’t have him ranked. This is all pre-2022 numbers mind you. He’s #75 by Keith Law. I feel comfortable calling him somewhere in the 70s, which would be a $24 million valuation. $52 million to go.
Except, well, the Athletics do have a catching prospect already. Several in fact. Shea Langeliers, about the same level of prospect as Herrera is, had a 97 wRC+ and a sky high K rate. His WAR wasn’t impressive, but that’s because he DH’d a lot. If he were a full-time catcher, that 97 wRC+ would play. Their #1 prospect is also a catcher. He’s in AAA. They are absolutely not trading for Herrera.
The next logical piece would be Nolan Gorman I’d think, though it’s here where the Athletics’ opinion matters. He’s young and you can reasonably expect him to hit, but if the A’s think he’s a complete dud defensively, that dude is just not going to be seen as super valuable on the market. So we have another guy where I’m just not really sure how he’s valued. Gorman was at #17 by Law at the beginning of the year, but then the season happened. He was at #58 by Fangraphs at essentially midseason. He was at #34 by Baseball America. He had 0.5 fWAR in 313 PAs, which would be about 1 WAR in a full season of plate appearances.
I don’t think his MLB performance hurts his value, but I’m not sure it helps him. And that’s entirely due to his defense, not his offense. I think he might be a 50 future value prospect, although him having an above average line at the MLB might get him 55 future value in trade value. Which would be $39 million in value. $38 million to go.
And frankly folks, this is where it hurts. Because if we’re not trading Jordan Walker or Masyn Winn, which most would agree we are trying to avoid, the upside has to come from somewhere. I think you might know where I’m going with this: Tink Hence. If you try to construct a trade for Sean Murphy, it’s gotta involve at least one name that truly will hurt. There’s no way around it. Hence was the #63 prospect by Baseball America, which I believe is his highest current ranking. Might not be the highest when the 2023 rankings are all published, as most aren’t. A #63 pitching prospect is a $27 million value by Fangraphs top 100 prospect value. That’s where I’m getting my numbers by the way.
Now we have $11 million left to cover. It gets a little tricky here. Alec Burleson or Juan Yepez would be two bat first, no defense guys and we already have given them one of those guys. I don’t really think they want two of them personally. Especially with two catching prospects where they might need a lot of DH starts. But there’s not a real good way of making this work. Either we overpay by a good amount - Gordon Graceffo and yes Matthew Liberatore are definitely valued as top 100 prospects and the #101 guy is $17 million in value.
And the Cards don’t really have that in-between prospect that would suck up most of that value. Burleson is kind of that guy, depending on which system you use of course (some have him top 100). But you drop from either low top 100s or fringe top 100 guy to.... not a whole lot of value guy. Someone like Michael McGreevy just doesn’t have much value. And he’s pretty much the next tier.
So I’m going to get a little creative here. The third guy will be Liberatore. We are now overpaying. But the Athletics throw in something as well, something the Cardinals could actually use and I don’t really think this guy has much value at all: Nick Allen. He’s a right-handed defensive specialist at SS who can’t hit a lick. He can’t hit right-handed pitching at all, but he had a 122 wRC+ against lefties. This is admittedly something that would be more useful with, say, Gorman than it is Brendan Donovan, but he would essentially fulfill the Paul DeJong role (who I expect to be traded.) Plus, he’s going to be 24, so maybe his bat will slightly come around, because his defense is legit.
So Nolan Gorman, Tink Hence, and Matthew Liberatore for Sean Murphy and Nick Allen. You can certainly substitute Hence for Graceffo if the Athletics like him more, though I really do think they’d like the upside of Hence more, which is why he’s included. I don’t think you can do both Graceffo and Hence though from the Cardinals’ perspective, you can’t trade both of your chances for aces and I doubt they would. Would be funny if both Liberatore and Gorman were in the same trade actually.
Thoughts? Too much? Just right? Technically the right value, but not something you can stomach? Technically the right value, but something the Athletics wouldn’t be interested in.