We’ve Been Talking About The Wrong Player From Oakland
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Tony Gutierrez, AP Photo
Monday, March 14, 2020 represented the beginning of a significant shift in the design of the Yankee roster. Following a quiet first weekend in the post-lockout world, Brian Cashman shook the Yankee world by dealing C Gary Sanchez and 3B Gio Urshela to the Twins for 3B Josh Donaldson, SS/UTIL Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and C Ben Rortvedt. To say this move came as a shock is a bit of an understatement. I had actually floated Gio Urshela as a possible trade piece during the offseason, but based on the dearth of catching across baseball, I really didn’t think it was realistic to expect the Yankees to move on from Gary Sanchez, particularly after Cashman didn’t go after some of the easily available catching help available early in the offseason. I very rarely speak without considering my take very carefully, but in the comments section yesterday, I said that I found the trade very underwhelming, even considering the fact that the Yankees are clearly not done yet. Since the shock has worn off now that we’ve passed the immediate aftermath of the trade, I have a far more nuanced opinion of yesterday’s deal.
For now, I am going to save my thoughts on this trade for another day mostly because I think we are going to have to evaluate this trade in the context of what comes next in Brian Cashman’s roster building efforts. If this is the big trade that Cashman has up his sleeve, then I will evaluate the deal very differently than I might with another acquisition or two to pair with this trade. Following the trade, many of us expected the Yankees to pivot to first base. Rumors persist that the Yankees are out on Freddie Freeman at the current price, so it seemed as though Matt Olson would be a perfect fit as a left-handed bopper who plays good defense at first base. The A’s were pretty clearly in “sell mode” yesterday, and while the Yankees indicated that Anthony Volpe was off the table in discussions for Olson, I still felt the Yankees had enough firepower to get the deal done. Needless to say, I was again surprised when Olson was traded to the Atlanta Braves.
I do not blame Brian Cashman one iota for not matching the Braves’ offer for Olson. The Braves sent their top two prospects, CF Cristian Pache and C Shane Langeliers, and pitching prospects Ryan Cusick and Joey Estes to the A’s in exchange for Matt Olson. As I noted in the comments section yesterday, that is an exorbitant price for a first baseman, even one with two years of team control remaining. The equivalents in the Yankee system would be SS/3B/2B Anthony Volpe, SS/MI Oswald Peraza, P Ken Waldichuck, P Hayden Wesneski/JP Sears. The pitchers I have included are further along their development path than the pitchers the Braves sent, but their prospect values are similar. The Yankees were prudent to hang on to such a significant chunk of their prospect capital in this instance.
However, that still leaves the Yankees with holes. Reading the tea leaves, I think we’ve been talking about the wrong trade target in Oakland all along. While the Yankees still have a hole at first base, I expect the Yankees to target Oakland A’s catcher, Sean Murphy. With Oakland ready to rebuild and trade anything of value that isn’t nailed to the floor, I would be shocked if Murphy isn’t one of the next chips to fall, and the Yankees just make too much sense.
At this point, the Yankees’ front office are very aware of which players/prospects the A’s front office like in the Yankee farm system and on the current roster. A trade could probably even happen quickly, given that the two sides have been engaged for much of the offseason discussing Olson and likely other players as well.
The Yankees could certainly go into the season with the underwhelming duo of Kyle Higashioka and Ben Rortvedt at catcher, but I’d tend to doubt it. The last time the Yankees went that defense-heavy at catcher, we as Yankee fans had to sit through an entire summer of a banged up Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart behind the plate. While there’s some hidden value in a Higgy/Rortvedt pairing, getting a true starting catcher would make all of us more comfortable. Sean Murphy is exactly the type of player the Yankees have coveted at catcher.
At 26 years old, Murphy is a good defender behind the plate, rating well as a pitch framer, blocker, and thrower, winning a Gold Glove award in 2021. While he will likely always post low batting averages, Murphy has a powerful bat that was just shy of average according to OPS+ in 2021, but it’s a bat from which we can expect more thump moving forward. Murphy hit 17 home runs in 2021 and had been a well above-average hitter in cameo appearances in 2019 and the shortened 2020 season. Statcast is even more bullish when we dig deeper into the numbers and reason to expect Murphy to perform even better moving forward.
Those 17 home runs would have been 19 home runs in Yankee Stadium according to Statcast, and indeed we see a couple of moonshots to left-centerfield in Murphy’s spray chart that were held in by Oakland’s monster wall. Additionally, while Murphy’s Max Exit Velocity of 112.8 ranked in the 87th percentile (indicating plus raw power), his hard hit rates and barrel rates were elite in 2021, indicating an ability to reach that power in games. Based on quality of contact, Statcast credits with a .337 XWOBA, while his actual .309 WOBA underperformed that mark by a fair margin. That indicates significant room for more performance in future campaigns, particularly when we consider the fact that Murphy typically performs right in line with XWOBA expectations. Further mitigating Murphy’s 2021 performance was surgery for a collapsed lung in February 2021, which almost certainly derailed his ability to train properly. Add in team control through the 2026 season, and Murphy seems like an ideal target for the Yankees.
An offseason that nets Murphy in addition to Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa makes the Yankees significantly better in 2022, enough so that I’d even be okay with it if the Yankees didn’t acquire a big time first baseman. Steamer projects the combination of Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela to be worth 2.8 fWAR in 2022. The combination of Murphy, Donaldson, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa projects to be worth 8.8 fWAR by Steamer. By that measure, combining Murphy with the current moves nets the Yankees an extra 6 wins in 2022. This is a no-brainer, and I fully expect the Yankees to put their eggs in the catching basket instead of a first baseman. If that’s the case, Murphy is the guy to target.