Cubs Involved in Sean Murphy Trade Talks, Astros Continue Courting Willson Contreras

The Astros have already added one beloved former Chicago baseball player and may be on the verge of luring another, though extenuating circumstances may drag the courtship out a little longer than initially thought. Even after a deadline deal to send Willson Contreras to Houston was scuttled by Dusty Baker, who subsequently came out on top in his power struggle with GM James Click, the desire to bring the catcher to the defending World Series champs seems stronger than ever.

Speaking to the media at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, Baker said the Astros “have interest” and would be talking with Contreras soon. The manager also clarified his comments about the aborted trade, saying his reservations were strictly about a new catcher having to mesh with the pitching staff midseason. Hold on, let’s check the tape.

“I needed a guy that wasn’t going to complain about not playing every day,” Baker explained last month. “And this is his [free agent] year. See, that’s tough. When you trade for a player in his [free agent] year. Everybody’s about numbers and stuff, and I can’t blame them, no doubt. But that’s not what we needed.”

Maybe there’s a way you can reverse-engineer that into the more diplomatic spin we’re seeing lately, but I’m calling BS on Dusty here. I guess Christian Vázquez wasn’t viewed as a potential complainer. Now that everything he was concerned about is gone, however, he can change his tune a bit and make sure fences are mended ahead of the meeting. Still, there’s a lot more to it than just mutual interest.

The Astros still have Martín Maldonado, a catcher with a decidedly different skillset than Contreras, and aren’t looking to have someone take over a bulk of the reps behind the plate. Contreras might need to spend a lot of time at DH or maybe even left field in order to keep his bat in the lineup, similar to how the Cubs used him this past season. How willing he is to accept a reduced catching role, which the Cubs likewise would have required, may determine how quickly this moves.

Another consideration is the trade market for Sean Murphy, who the A’s are aggressively looking to move in order to get out from beneath the crushing weight of his projected $3.5 million arbitration salary. Or perhaps it’s a matter of flipping the catcher while his value is at its peak. The 28-year-old Murphy is cheap and still has three years of club control left, plus he’s already won a Gold Glove and has a 116 career wRC+ over 330 games in four seasons.

Oh, he’s also got a nice ass.

Contreras has generated slightly better offensive results over the course of his career, but his defense is no match for Murphy’s and he’s about two and a half years older. That’s why so many teams are interested in checking with Oakland on what it will take to acquire Murphy, including both the Astros and Cubs. Unless he’s willing to take a discount just to get something done quickly, Contreras may have to wait on the resolution of that trade to solidify his own market.

Seeing the Cubs included in this group is surprising, mainly because of what it would take to pry Murphy loose. We’re talking about the kind of haul that would completely reshape the top of the farm system by requiring Chicago to part with perhaps 3-4 prospects and/or an MLB-ready player. Alexander Canario can’t be part of that and Brennen Davis is likely out as well, then you figure Pete Crow-Armstrong is considered off-limits.

In that case, we can safely assume the ask would be something along the lines of Kevin Alcántara, Jordan Wicks, one of Owen Caissie or James Triantos, and then Keegan Thompson or another starting pitching prospect. Cristian Hernandez could also be in play, especially if the Cubs pull out a massive coup to land two of this year’s top free-agent shortstops. Having the entire infield locked up for several more years would provide a little flexibility to deal middle infield prospects, that’s for sure.

All that said, this Murphy talk strikes me as more of the Cubs kicking the tires and making their interest known for the sake of driving up the price for the Cardinals or just because it’d be irresponsible to not at least check. If Jed Hoyer is truly operating with an open checkbook as was reported Monday night, it’s much easier to spend ownership’s money than to further strip a farm system that’s already experienced recent topsoil erosion due to injury.

The A’s probably want to capitalize on all the early activity at the Winter Meetings and the Astros’ baseball decisions are currently being made by their owner, so it’s entirely possible we could get a blockbuster here in the next day or two. But so help me, if the Cardinals manage to get Murphy for a package that includes a pair of Low-A first basemen and a case of Provel cheese, I’ll be very upset.

Then again, the alternative might be that Houston lands Murphy and then pivots to Contreras. Which would be worse?

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