It’s not easy finding good help these days, at least not behind the plate.
“Outside of maybe a No. 1 starter, catcher is the toughest position to fill right now,” said Rob Antony, the Twins’ assistant general manager. “So to get a young guy who could be a two-way threat, who you hope will be able to handle that position for several years, that’s a pretty attractive incentive.”
The Twins believe they achieved that Wednesday, acquiring 24-year-old catcher John Ryan Murphy from the Yankees in a trade that did not come without a steep price. Aaron Hicks, projected to extend the Twins’ Puckett-Hunter-Span tradition of great center fielders practically since the day he was drafted with a first-round pick in 2008, was shipped to New York, the Twins finally giving up on the promise he had only recently started to fulfill.
“He turned a corner in 2015. He started to get it. He really matured into a person as a player,” Antony said of Hicks, whose .346 resurgence in July seemed to signal a change in the 26-year-old outfielder’s fortunes. “He’s a good guy, and I hope he does well there. I hope this is a good trade for both sides.”
The Twins were dealing from surplus, however, with Byron Buxton in their plans for center field next year, Eddie Rosario coming off a strong rookie season in left field, and rookie slugger Miguel Sano headed to right field under General Manager Terry Ryan’s blueprint. In addition, Max Kepler, the team’s minor league player of the year, will start next season at Class AAA and could be promoted during the season.
And with Kurt Suzuki entering the likely final year of his contract, coming off a subpar season at the plate, the promise of Murphy was too much to pass up, Antony said.
“We project him as a starting catcher down the road, he has that ability,” Antony said. “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.”
That’s what the Yankees think, too, but with All-Star Brian McCann in place, it wasn’t going to happen in New York.
“The Twins got themselves an everyday catcher,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters at the MLB general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Fla.
Murphy, a righthanded 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, and got better as he grew more comfortable in New York. Murphy batted .308/.368/.487 after the All-Star break.
Murphy figures to challenge 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, unlikely now that Murphy is behind him. 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, who batted a combined .161] 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.”
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 earned the Twins’ Opening Day job in center, but failed to hold, eventually winding up back at Class AAA Rochester. He started there in 2015, too, but got another chance, and enjoyed the hottest month of his career in July, complete with diving catches in the outfielder. The switch-hitter finished the season with 11 homers and a .266 average, and was voted the Twins’ most improved player.
“I would like to thank the Twins organization for making me into the player I am today. Truly blessed to grow up in the organization,” Hicks said via Twitter. “At the same time I am excited to join the Yankees and put on the famous pinstripes.”