Sean Murphy’s Extremely Club-Friendly Deal Raised Eyebrows, Could Inform Cubs’ Extension Talks

I don’t know how the Braves keep doing it. They have now extended their seventh core player after agreeing to a six-year, $73 million contract with Sean Murphy shortly after getting him in a trade with Oakland. That’s barely over $12 million AAV, or just a little more than 69% of what Willson Contreras got from the Cardinals despite being almost two and a half years older. Even considering that this would have been Murphy’s first arbitration year, the deal is eyebrow-raisingly club-friendly.

Interestingly enough, one of the most questionable facets of the deal that is the seventh-year option for $15 million that would push it to $88 million ($12.57 AAV). Thing is, it’s a club option that has no buyout attached. Why would an agent agree to something like that? Murphy will also donate 1% of his salary to the Atlanta Braves Foundation, a legitimate cause that nonetheless comes off like a tax dodge or money laundering scheme.

You can skip to the final five paragraphs if you’d prefer the tl;dr version with just Cubs info, but you’ll miss a lot of the nuance related to negotiations and such.

In just the last 2-3 years, they have extended Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Michael Harris, Matt Olson (who they also acquired from Oakland for less than expected), Austin Riley, and Spencer Strider. They’ve also got Max Fried for two more seasons, Kyle Wright for four more, and Vaughn Grissom for six. Of their extended players, Albies has the least amount of control and he’s locked in through 2027.

Albies immediately came to mind when I first saw the Murphy news, mainly because I was so gobsmacked by the second baseman’s 2019 deal that I wrote about it as well. There was a sense at the time that Albies, represented by SportsMeter, may have effectively been led to sign an eight-year, $35 million extension that was well below market value because small agencies have a greater need to secure both commissions and clients.

Below is an excerpt from Jeff Passan’s piece about how baseball’s obsession with value would change contracts forever. That might sound a little strange given the contracts we’ve seen handed out this winter, though the Braves are successfully swimming against a strong current (not that it’s necessarily a good thing, mind you).

About a dozen large agencies are employed by a majority of players. These agencies, because of their size, do not depend on single commissions for the health of their businesses and thus are inured from the moral hazard that can influence those with fewer clients. At 5 percent commission, a $20 million extension means $1 million for an agent. The incentive, then, to do an extension can be strong for smaller shops — Albies employs one in agent David Meter — which also fear client-poaching from larger agencies. Even among the larger agencies, the concern over losing a client — and a commission — can compel extensions.

It’s important to note that while SportsMeter has only eight MLB clients, three of them (Albies, Nick Castellanos, and Francisco Lindor) combine for nearly $500 million in contracts. By comparison, Rowley Sports Management’s stable of four baseballers consists of only pitchers Kyle Gibson and Ken Giles and outfielder Ryan Cordell in addition to Murphy. Of those first three, only Gibson has a contract for 2023 after signing a one-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles.

The 30-year-old Cordell may not even be playing pro ball any longer after slashing .231/.359/.471 with seven home runs and 23 RBI for the Gastonia Honey Hunters of the Atlantic League in 2021. Giles signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the Mariners prior to the ’21 season, but was placed on the 60-day IL in March of that year due to Tommy John surgery the previous fall. He was eventually DFA’d in August of ’22 after just 4.1 innings for Seattle, then signed a minor league deal with the Giants that lasted eight whole days.

Viewing the Murphy extension through that lens sure seems to lend credence to the idea that the folks at Rowley might be more amenable to a club-friendly deal. While it’s not nearly as perplexing as the Albies contract, I keep looking at that unprotected option and the fact that Murphy will earn just $13 million over the next two seasons — numbers he may have been able to surpass in arbitration — and wondering what the agency was doing.

At the same time, however, I believe it’s important not to simply throw reps under the bus and act as though players have no agency (pun more or less intended) in these matters. Murphy’s not a young guy and catchers don’t have the longest shelf life, positionally speaking, so he may have been more than happy to put pen to paper on a six-year deal. And maybe he was just happy to get out of Oakland to play for a team that has so much young talent already locked up.

Murphy also got more than twice Albies’ guarantee over two fewer years, so this is as much about the Braves’ general ability to keep extending players as it is the specific amounts. That said, bigger agencies may use the Murphy contract as a recruiting tool.

“There’s a bullshit narrative that this was caused by a ‘small agency’ trying to cash in before a ‘big agency’ poached their player,” a player rep with a smaller agency told Cubs Insider following the Albies news. “Big agencies are made up of agents with small client bases that could have made the same terrible deal. This just gives ammo to big agencies to poach even more. It was a self-serving line given by a big agency to Passan.

“If there’s any truth to an agent putting their interest before their client’s interest, that’s shameful. As a lawyer, I would get disbarred for such activity.”

I suppose I should tie this up by discussing whether and how it applies to our namesake team’s (in)ability to extend their contractual control of players. Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ are the most likely candidates to be engaged in talks this winter and Jed Hoyer has said he’d like to have deals done prior to the start of spring training if possible. There are complicating factors with both, however.

Hoerner is younger and just entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, so the Cubs could get value by buying out the next years and then tacking on three or four more like the Braves did with Murphy. Moving to second base decreases Hoerner’s value, but it could be argued that he’s still a shortstop value-wise and we saw how the market exploded this winter. He’s also represented by Apex Baseball, which isn’t a tiny shop even if its stable isn’t stocked with studs.

Happ is coming off of a Gold Glove campaign as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal, so he’s going to be looking to cash in. The Andrew Benintendi contract on the South Side serves as a jumping-off point, though Happ is probably going to want a little more than five years and $75 million. In addition to other factors, his role as the team’s union rep means he’s got a responsibility to support his fellow players by not settling for a club-friendly offer.

On the other hand, Happ is represented by WME Baseball, an outfit with just four players that famously lost its biggest client to a monster agency last winter. As you may recall from our pieces here and elsewhere, Carlos Correa jumped from WME to Scott Boras prior to inking a unique contract with the Twins. It’s hard to imagine an agency’s desire to keep a client and the resultant commission from a new contract overriding Happ’s personal preference and strong business acumen, though it’s worth dog-earing the idea for future reference.

Wow, that was a whole lot on a topic that may only be Cubs-adjacent if we choose to force things a little. Given the alternative of following the Correa saga any closer, this seemed more interesting and worthwhile.

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