Alex Anthopoulos on acquiring Sean Murphy, the plan at shortstop

When Alex Anthopoulos first took over as the general manager for the Atlanta Braves, many expected him to swing big with what was one of the best farm systems in the game. However, he slow-played things and let the core develop before trading key prospects. As many of those prospects reached the majors and transformed the Braves from a rebuilding team to a contender, Anthopoulos hasn’t shown as much resistance to swinging a big deal. The first came last offseason, when he acquired Matt Olson from the Oakland Athletics. On Monday he swung another big trade with the Athletics, this time for catcher Sean Murphy.

“I know there was the report about Murphy before the Winter Meetings,” Anthopoulos said when asked about when the deal for Murphy came together. “At the time, we had checked in, like we do on a lot of players. Any young player who could be available in trade, we’re gonna check in and ask. But there was no fit and that was the end of it. So when that report came out, we weren’t talking to Oakland, we weren’t engaged, there wasn’t anything going on.”

“This Saturday, the Murphy scenario popped up in a three-way. All of a sudden, there’s a scenario where we could do something where we get Murphy and it’s a three-way deal. So we spent time on it over the weekend in to today and got it done.”

Murphy was a workhorse for Oakland, appearing in 148 games in 2022 with most coming behind the plate. However, Anthopoulos envisions ample opportunities for Murphy and incumbent catcher Travis d’Arnaud both behind the plate and at DH.

“I talked to Travis before anything was done. I contacted him just to let him know,” Anthopoulos said of d’Arnaud. He’s here, Travis is here, he’s going to be here. He’s a huge part of our team. 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 Snit. But especially at that position, you know you’re going to need fresh legs and we’ve got DH at-bats as well. So there’ll be plenty of playing time to go around.”

“There are scenarios that both guys, assuming health and that’s the right thing for them, they could be in the lineup. Both guys could be everyday players in the lineup. Snit will make that determination. We’re going to want to make sure that we keep them fresh, but there’s at bats for them to be in the lineup. So Travis knows that. Obviously, Shawn does Snit is going to make that call, but with the DH, it works.”

One interesting part about Anthopoulos’ comments on the DH is that Marcell Ozuna, as of this date, remains on the roster. Ozuna is owed $37 million for next two seasons, and while he could figure into the left field picture along with Eddie Rosario, that isn’t something that the club would likely want to see on a regular basis given the past few years.

While the situation in the left field is still pending, the Braves are getting one of the best defensive catchers in the league in Murphy. His defensive and framing ability moves the needle and that will be even more important in 2023 given the limited step-off/pickoff rule which will likely encourage teams to run more often.

“I think from a defensive standpoint, he’s definitely up there. He’s a strong defensive catcher,” Anthopoulos said. “There’s only so many guys in the game that are winning Gold Gloves year after year. He’s definitely got all the tools. He’s a plus defender and he’s got ability with the bat and he calls a good game and prepares. All that stuff is very important to us, especially at that position. It’s one that we’ve put a premium on, since I got here. It’s why we kept signing guys like Flowers back. Brian McCann. Travis d’Arnaud. We’ve been very particular. We really have a specific skill set that we look for. When we look at game calling, the prep, the defensive side, it’s hard to get all those things. He does check a lot of boxes.”

While defense is Murphy’s calling card, he is an above-average offensive player as well, boasting a 118 wRC+ for his career. He hit a career-best 18 home runs in 2022 and will no doubt be aided by the more hitter-friendly conditions at Truist Park.

A deal like this doesn’t get made without a cost. Atlanta feels fan favorite William Contreras and minor league reliever Justin Yeager to the Milwaukee Brewers and pitchers Kyle Muller, Freddy Tarnok and Royber Salinas, along with veteran catcher Manny Pina, to Oakland to complete the deal.

“It’s always hard to make trades, it’s always hard to trade guys away,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s just a rare opportunity to get a premium defensive player at a premium position. It’s tough, we gave up a lot of really talented guys that we liked, but we look at Sean and how he fits with this core and this group. It’s just a really good fit. Now you combine him with Travis, we put so much stock into that position. The bar is very high for us. We’re very particular, very specific about who we target in a role like that and this was about him, no doubt about it. Look, you’d love to give up less in these trades, but you’re trying to get a really good player that other teams want as well. So, that was the cost to get it done. We ultimately were willing, but no doubt, it’s hard to give up the talent that we did.”

Atlanta dealt from areas of strength on the roster at catcher and the starting rotation. While Contreras played a huge part for the team in 2022, they are confident that Murphy can provide more behind the plate. Muller would have been among the group competing for the fifth starter spot in the spring along with Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka and Bryce Elder. Darius Vines and Jared Shuster aren’t that far behind either.

“You always worry about starter depth. So we definitely gave up some guys there. Kyle was a guy that we needed last year and we were going to count on him to make some starts for us in the current year,” Anthopoulos said. “Tarnok had just gotten up. I don’t know ultimately what his role would have been with us in 2023, but the fact that he got up, he was certainly going to be in play. Obviously Contreras, we are swapping him out with Sean Murphy, so you are covered at that spot. A guy like Salinas, big arm, big stuff. A lot of swings and misses. Big upside. He’s not a big name right now, but we like him a lot. The talent is certainly there. Yeager is a guy that’s a reliever that’s got a good shot to contribute. We definitely gave up a ton we’re getting a really good player back. Acquiring guys like that is hard and it’s going to be expensive.”

One thing that Anthopoulos has said since he took over in Atlanta is that he is always looking for ways to make the club better and this deal is an example of that. The catcher position would have been viewed as a position of strength going into the season and this deal just makes it better.

“We definitely didn’t go into the winter thinking, we need to do something behind the plate,” Anthopoulos said of the deal. We viewed it as a strength. We really felt confident and comfortable with d’Arnaud, Contreras and Manny Pina with the DH spot. The issue is, you can’t decide when players become available. You can sit there and say, well, we don’t have a need in 2023 so let’s pass, but you may not have access to that player again. So ultimately, this was the time to get him. It seemed like he was going to move this offseason at some point. And then once on the weekend, all of a sudden, there was a path there. As much as it wasn’t a need for 2023, with the three years of control and everything it brings, it’s a really good player to acquire. It was a good fit for our club. We were going to try and find a way to make the deal work.”

What about short stop?

While the Braves did improve the catcher position, there are still a couple of other areas of the roster that need to be addressed including the shortstop position where Dansby Swanson is a free agent this offseason. Anthopoulos didn’t tip his hand as to what they might be thinking at short, but again plugged the team’s internal options in Orlando Arcia and Vaughn Grissom. Much like the trade for Murphy though, he did say that they wouldn’t hesitate to make a deal if it would improve the club.

“Obviously I know it is the elephant in the room. We are still open-minded clearly, but again also we have to prepare with what we have right now and what we have currently on the roster is Orlando Arcia and Vaughn Grissom,” Anthopoulos answered when asked about the shortstop position. “No one’s been handed anything. Definitely not prepared to name the starting shortstop right now. There’s still guys that are out there and available. If the season started today with who we have on the roster, It would be a competition between those two, but the season doesn’t start today, so we are going to leave our options open and if we can make the club better at that spot or anywhere else, we’ll continue to look to do it.”

While the door hasn’t been closed all the way on Swanson’s potential return, the Braves could also look to acquire a veteran whether by trade or through free agency that could help fill the position while they determine what they have in Grissom. Infield coach Ron Washington has been spending time with Grissom this offseason in an effort to improve his defense. It doesn’t sound like the Braves have closed the door on Grissom as the team’s shortstop of the future, but it remains to be seen whether he will be given the opportunity in 2023.

“I think you’re weighing everything against what you believe Orlando Arcia is, what you believe Vaughn is. We’ll find out, especially with Vaughn because he’s so young,” Anthopoulos added on the situation at shortstop. “Wash is going to spend time with him again in December and he has really got belief in him. We can all have opinions, myself included, but ultimately, like anything else, you go with your staff and the guys that are experienced. He really, especially after the first time he went out there, he called me and he raved about it. I was surprised just because Wash isn’t the type to rave. I just felt like you know, 21 and everything he’s done. He’s a young player and at some point, we think he’ll be very good. Whether that opportunity presents itself in 2023, it’s too early to tell.”

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