Did the Cardinals make a mistake signing Contreras over trading for Sean Murphy?
By Henry Fitzgerald
Willson Contreras' tenure with the Cardinals has been off to a rocky start. Would the Cardinals have been better off pursuing a trade for the former A's Catcher Sean Murphy?
In an article recently posted in the Athletic, Ken Rosenthal questioned the St. Louis Cardinals' signing of Willson Contreras. The article titled "Cardinals' signing of Willson Contreras always was a questionable choice" contains key insight from President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak on the free-agent acquisition as well as an update on what the true asking price was from the Athletics for Sean Murphy.
In December, St. Louis Post Dispatch writer Derrick Goold reported that the Athletics wanted OF Lars Nootbaar, IF Brendan Donovan, and a young pitcher such as #4 ranked organizational prospect Gordon Graceffo in exchange for Murphy.
A few days later, Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Athletics were asking for Graceffo and either Nootbaar or Donovan, not both of them. According to Rosenthal, the Cardinals did not want to trade any of those three players. The apparent final package, as proposed by the Cardinals, was for the Athletics to choose two players from the following list: OF Dylan Carlson, 2B Nolan Gorman, OF Alec Burleson, and OF Juan Yepez.
As far as we know, discussions between Oakland and St. Louis halted there. The Athletics ended up trading Sean Murphy to the Braves in a three-team deal that looped in the Milwaukee Brewers. With the benefit of hindsight, let's look at the performance of Willson Contreras including questions about his defensive fit as a catcher as well as how Sean Murphy is fairing in Atlanta.
Through 117 at-bats in 2023, Willson Contreras is slashing .265/.341/.734. He has hit two home runs (both coming in the same game) and driven in 14. This checks out to a 105 OPS+, or 5% above the MLB average. Contreras has done a decent job in the run game, even with the larger bases. Questions remain about his chemistry with the Cardinals' pitching staff and the ability to call a game from behind the plate.
On Saturday, May 6th, Katie Woo of the Athletic reported that Contreras "won't catch much" in the coming weeks. She said that Contreras would be a primary option at DH and also in a corner outfield spot. This information shocked many Cardinals fans as Contreras was supposed to be the heir apparent to legend Yadier Molina behind the plate. At least for the first few years, the expectation was that Contreras would be the primary option at Catcher with the possibility to shift more toward a DH role in the latter years of his 5-year contract.
On the other hand, through 103 at-bats, Murphy has settled in nicely with the Atlanta Braves stacked lineup. He is slashing .282/.426/.621 on the season. Murphy has also chipped in 9 HRs, driven in 28, and currently leads the National League in Slugging % (.621), OPS (1.048), and OPS+ (180).
The Cardinals hold Nootbaar and Donovan in high regard and for good reason. Nootbaar showed tremendous growth in the second half of the 2022 season and is off to a good start in 2023 boasting a .429 OBP and a 135 OPS+ (35% above MLB average). Donovan started the 2023 campaign on fire but has since cooled down. Still, the 26-year-old utility man won a Gold Glove last year and finished 3rd in NL ROY voting. The other piece that the Athletics were asking for, Gordon Graceffo, has a 4.91 ERA and 10 BBs through 22 innings pitched in AAA Memphis.
There are two primary reasons why trading either Nootbar or Donovan plus Graceffo for Sean Murphy could have panned out better for the Cardinals as opposed to signing Contreras. Those are the existing organizational depth in the infield and outfield as well as financial considerations.
If the Cardinals had traded Donovan and Graceffo for Murphy there would have been a handful of players ready to fill Donovan's shoes at Second Base. First, Nolan Gorman could have been the everyday 2B with Tommy Edman at SS. Another option, if the Cardinals wanted to keep Gorman as a DH would have been to fast-track the development of Masyn Winn and put Edman back at 2B. The second option would have been unlikely, but Winn showed flashes in Spring Training and the infield depth could have reasonably supported the departure of Donovan.
The other option, Nootbaar, and Graceffo, perhaps would have made even more sense from a replacement player lens. The Cardinals have too many outfielders and not enough at-bats for them. Had Nootbaar been shipped to Oakland, the team could have started O'Neill, Carlson, and Burleson in the Outfield. Not to mention #1 ranked organizational prospect Jordan Walker, Juan Yepez, or even Moises Gomez who are all young players with rotational outfield potential, currently.
The second reason, in hindsight, would have been the financial flexibility that a trade for Murphy would have created (or maintained). Before signing a 6-year extension with Atlanta Murphy had three remaining years of arbitration eligibility (2023, 2024, and 2025). Instead, the Cardinals shelled out $17.5m in AAV to Contreras over five years which represents the largest free-agent deal given to a non-Cardinal in franchise history.
So, Murphy would have been financially cheaper and he is a few years younger than Contreras. On top of the $87.5m committed to Contreras, the Cardinals also lose out on a 2023 draft pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money since Contreras had an outstanding qualifying offer.
It is unfair both to Contreras and the Cardinals front office to make an absolute evaluation on the decision to sign Contreras and consequently not trade for Murphy this early in the season. Contreras brings sincere competitiveness to St. Louis and is still considered one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. Time and the comparative production of Contreras and Murphy will help to see this argument in a clearer image. In the meantime, Cardinal fans have every right to wonder if Mozeliak and company should have leaned on organizational depth and traded for the younger, cheaper, and better defensive catcher in Sean Murphy.