J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball. The 28-year-old was worth 5.7 fWAR last season after putting up a slash line of .275/.328/.493 with a career high 25 homers, a career-best 83 and 92 runs scored, more than in any other season he’d had before.
He won the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove and was named as to MLB.com’s first ever all-MLB team earlier this off-season.
Given his production and how important he is to the team, both in the short and long-term, it’s understandable to feel some concern over the failure of Phillies and Realmuto’s camp to agree to a one-year deal for 2020 ahead of arbitration filing deadlines on Friday.
Phillies have exchanged salary figures with JT Realmuto. He seeks $12.4 million, team filed at $10 million— Jim Salisbury (@JSalisburyNBCS) January 11, 2020
The $2.4 million gap isn’t a small one, but it’s also not a gap that can’t be bridged between now and then, and the two sides can continue to discuss a one-year deal ahead of their arbitration hearing, which will most likely take place during the first two weeks of February.
Logically, it’s hard for fans to understand why the Phillies wouldn’t reward the best catcher in baseball with a $12.4 million deal for 2020. He’s clearly worth it. It’s also hard for fans to understand why the two sides wouldn’t just meet in the middle and agree to a $11.2 million contract for next year. But obviously, there are reasons.
It’s never a good thing for a player and his team to go to arbitration. No player wants to hear all the ways in which the team doesn’t think he’s worth the money he’s asking for, but in this case, it’s pretty clear the Phils value Realmuto highly, as the two sides have reportedly been working on a long-term extension that would kick into effect starting in 2021.
The issue with 2020 is the luxury tax. The Phillies are about $5-6 million under the $208 million threshold, depending on which estimate you look at. They don’t want to go over the tax, and in this case, a difference of $2.4 million is a big deal. Narrowing the gap between the current payroll and the tax could mean the difference between adding a needed relief arm or veteran starter on a cheap deal in Clearwater.
Of course, the luxury tax isn’t a hard cap. Teams can go past it and, in the case of the Phillies, a 20% tax on any overage wouldn’t mean all that much (although it would mean a steeper penalty should the team also go over next year).
It’s important not to panic. Last year the Phils and Aaron Nola couldn’t come to an agreement prior to the arbitration filing deadline, and yet, just hours before the case was to be heard, the two sides agreed on a multi-year deal. In 2007, the Phillies went to arbitration with Ryan Howard, a power hitter whose case, much like Realmuto’s, had no precedent before, and the team still signed him to two multi-year extensions after that.
Players, agents and general managers understand this is a business. Realmuto likely has been told that the reason the Phils aren’t meeting his number is to give them room under the tax. And Realmuto has to do what’s best for him, too. He feels he’s worth $12.4 million, and he is.
The smart money says this case never goes to a hearing and that the two sides work something out. But even if it does, it likely doesn’t change the probability of the two sides working on a long-term deal later. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re further along in their discussions on that multi-year deal than they are a contract for 2020.