Matt Chapman, seen here in August of 2017, is the best defender in the American League. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Bernstein: For A’s, drafting Murray too special to pass up, just like Chapman

When the Oakland A’s drafted him, they knew they were taking a risk. His college hitting numbers were underwhelming compared to other first-round picks and some wondered if he might be better suited on the mound.

But how could the A’s not draft someone with the chance of blossoming into a generational talent? How could a team constantly searching for the next edge over its high-spending rivals pass on a player who could unleash on-target 98 mph throws? It was hardly a tough decision, so with the 25th selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, Oakland took third baseman Matt Chapman from Cal State Fullerton.

The same thinking applied when the A’s picked Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray No. 9 in the 2018 MLB Draft. Even if the reigning Heisman Trophy winner — who put his name into the 2019 NFL Draft last week — never played a game for their organization, the shot at something special was too much to pass up.

It increasingly appears the Murray risk won’t pan out for the A’s, the outfield prospect choosing to enter the NFL Draft as he weighs a pro football career. When assessing what Murray’s change of heart means for Oakland, though, it’s important to remember the jackpot it already hit in Chapman.

Murray might have what it takes to be a transcendent baseball player. Chapman is already there, even if he receives far less national attention.

“As good as he is right now, he has the ability to get a lot better,” manager Bob Melvin said of Chapman last August. “He’s going to end up being one of those guys — one of those top-flight guys that you’re probably going to talk about every year in that [MVP] conversation.”

Chapman’s brilliance first materialized in an otherwise meaningless July 2017 contest. He’d been struggling at the plate, hitting .146 in his first 12 career games at the big-league level. A matchup with Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber seemed an unlikely place for a turnaround.

But in his first at-bat against Kluber, Chapman clubbed a 409-foot home run to left-center field for his first big league long ball. In his second at-bat, Chapman doubled down the right field line. In his third at-bat, Chapman tied the game with a 455-foot shot to dead center that left the bat at 110 mph.

As he’s proven that rookie performance to be indicative of his immense offensive talent, hitting .278 with 24 home runs and 68 RBIs across 145 games this past season, Chapman has also shown the conversation should merely start with his bat.

The 2018 Gold Glover rated far better defensively than any other third baseman in baseball last year, finishing with 29 defensive runs saved compared to seven for the next-best defender, and high school teammate Nolan Arenado a distant fourth with five defensive runs saved at third base.

Chapman’s knack for getting to un-gettable balls before lasering throws across the diamond was enough to prompt laughter at times. Seriously, who’s a better fielder in the modern era of A’s baseball? Who even comes close?

“He takes pride in it,” third base coach Matt Williams told NBC in August. “He’s certainly dynamic and athletic, but I think the biggest thing for me is his work ethic. He genuinely loves to make a great play. All of those things combined make him an elite guy at the position.”

There’s also the quiet leadership Chapman brings, which presents itself in subtle ways like a mid-inning stroll to the mound to reassure a laboring pitcher, or a conversation with an opposing catcher trying to get in the heads of his teammates. For a young team in need of a guiding force, his presence is crucial.

All told, there’s a pretty strong case Chapman is already up there with Josh Donaldson, Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi as the best position player the A’s have had this century. His 8.2 wins above replacement by Baseball Reference’s calculation were the most in Oakland since 2001, while his 6.5 wins above replacement by Fangraphs were the most in Oakland since 2013.

If Murray chooses to go to the NFL, some fans might foolishly direct anger toward him, even though he’s trying to make the choice that will lead to a happier life. Others might use his potential NFL flight as some symbol of A’s incompetence.

The best option would be to let it go.

Chapman has brought more than enough excitement to Oakland to dissipate the sting felt from Murray’s potential departure. Led by its third baseman, this A’s team is set to contend for the next several seasons. Enjoy it while you can.

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