The Twins addressed their lack of catching depth on Wednesday, the team announced, but at a cost of one of their young outfielders.
Aaron Hicks has been traded to the Yankees, potentially opening an outfield spot for Miguel Sano. In return, the Twins will receive John Ryan Murphy, a 24-year-old catcher who backed up Brian McCann in New York.
“We project him as a starting catcher down the road, he has that ability,” said Rob Antony, the Twins’ assistant general manager. “He’s got a good arm, receives the ball well, and he can hit. Even has a little power. We’re taking a guy who hasn’t proven it in the big leagues yet, but our scouts believe he’ll be a solid major-league starting catcher.”
Murphy, a right-handed batter, has spent parts of three seasons in the majors after being drafted in the second round in 2009, but 2015 was his first full season with the Yankees. He batted .277 in 67 games, and hit three home runs and nine doubles. Murphy posted a .327 on-base percentage and a .406 slugging average in his part-time role, and hit a game-winning, ninth-inning, three-run homer off Twins closer Glen Perkins in an 8-5 Yankees victory over the Twins at Target Field on July 25.
Murphy figures to challenge holdover catcher Kurt Suzuki for the regular job next season, and, the Twins hope, move into the starting job once the 32-year-old veteran’s contract expires. Suzuki is under contract for 2016 at $6 million, and can guarantee himself another $6 million for 2017 if he reaches 485 plate appearances. An All-Star in 2014, Suzuki significantly declined in 2015, batting .240 with a .296 on-base percentage and .314 slugging.
“We’ll let it play out, but we believe Murphy will play more than our second catchers [Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer] did last season,” Antony said. “Not only has he shown he can be a reliable hitter as a backup, but it’s possible giving Kurt more time off will help him rebound a little bit at the plate.”
Twins backup catchers batted a combined .161 in 2015, so Murphy projects as a big upgrade there, even if Suzuki remains the starter. And the newcomer has a good defensive reputation, too. He threw out eight of 29 potential base-stealers last season, or 28 percent. Suzuki threw out 15 percent (14 of 94).
He’s got a very strong arm, it’s a pretty accurate arm. We believe with those attributes, there’s not a lot of downside,” Antony said. “If the bat plays, that makes him a two-way threat.”
A two-way threat is what Hicks finally became in the second half of 2015, after two disappointing seasons in 2013 and 2014 which he failed to hold the Twins’ starting center field job. The Twins’ first-round pick in 2007 is a career .225 hitter in the majors, but batted .346 in July after being recalled from Class AAA Rochester. Hicks, who finished the season with 11 homers and a .266 average, was voted the Twins’ most improved player.
But Hicks’ role was in doubt heading into 2016, with the arrival of Byron Buxton and general manager Terry Ryan’s decision to move young slugger Miguel Sano to the outfield next season. In addition, Max Kepler will start next season at Class AAA and could arrive in the major leagues soon.
“Byron is the heir apparent, no doubt, but it’s a matter of when he’s ready to take that next step,” Antony said. “We hope he shows he’s ready next spring, but if he needs time at Triple-A, we have [Danny] Santana or some other options.”
With that depth in the outfield, and the Yankees’ depth at catcher — in addition to McCann, a seven-time all-star who is under contract for three more seasons, the Yankees have Gabe Sanchez, one of the game’s most prized catching prospects, in their minor league system — the depth was a natural one, Antony said.
“We weren’t looking to trade Hicks, not at all, but the trade made sense as we talked to them,” Antony said. “They need an outfielder who can play all three positions. In 2015, he turned a corner, he started to get it. He really matured into a person as a player. He’s a good guy, and I hope he does well there. I hope this is a good trade for both sides.”
The Twins scouted Murphy extensively before the 2009 draft, when he was in high school in Bradenton, Fla., “so we had a lot of information on him. We’ve followed him for a long time,” Antony said. That’s partly because catching has become increasingly scarce in the past decade or so. “Outside of maybe a No. 1 starter, catching is the toughest position to fill right now. If you’ve got a good one, you’re not giving him up,” Antony said. The Twins have two catchers, Stuart Turner, who spent 2015 with Class AA Chattanooga, and Mitch Garver, the starter for Class A Fort Myers, now playing in the Arizona Fall League.
“Now with Murphy, we have three guys in the mix for that job down the road, guys we’ll have under control for several years,” Antony said.
The trade comes one day after the Twins dealt Herrmann to Arizona for a minor league outfielder Daniel Palka, and two days after winning the rights to Korean slugger Byung-ho Park, who will likely become the Twins’ new designated hitter if the two sides reach a contract agreement.