There is plenty of pessimism surrounding the Phillies and it is, of course, understandable.
The franchise opened their contention window prior to the 2018 season and, over the last three years, failed to finish any of those campaigns with a winning record, let alone a playoff berth. One could argue the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals and New York Mets have all passed them (or soon will) in the NL East, the front office was dragged kicking and screaming into addressing their front office uncertainties over the last week, and owner John Middleton has hinted he will reduce payroll ahead of the 2021 season.
“Who’s going to want to uproot during a pandemic?” signified a level of apathy by the front office that turned many Phils fans off and created an atmosphere of apathy among the fanbase that should concern Middleton.
That pessimism carries over into the team’s supposed desire to re-sign J.T. Realmuto to a free agent contract. In an effort to stay under the luxury tax this season, the Phillies stalled their talks last off-season and insisted Realmuto play on his final arbitration figure in 2020 with the assumption they would re-engage in extension talks during spring training. COVID scuttled those plans and now Middleton (and whatever is going on in the front office) must contend with 29 other teams for his services.
That sounds daunting, and it certainly will be a challenge, but there are plenty of reasons to believe Realmuto will return to Philadelphia.
Realmuto’s Possible Contract
Entering the off-season, Realmuto’s camp was reportedly “eyeing” a contract in the $200 million range. That ain’t happening, but it’s likely Realmuto will receive a contract with a higher AAV than any other backstop in MLB history. The current record holder is Buster Posey’s $23 million deal, so a five year, $125 million deal ($25 million AAV) sounds about right.
If that’s the kind of money we’re talking about, that seems like a contract Middleton could do. It wouldn’t break the bank, would make J.T. the second-highest paid player on the Phils and baseball’s richest catcher ever on an AAV basis.
(This assumes Mets owner Steve Cohen doesn’t lose his mind and offer Realmuto a six or seven-year deal north of $25 million a season. If he does, Realmuto will be a Met, but I’m not convinced Cohen is reckless enough to make such an offer.)
Right now the Phillies projected payroll, according to Spotrac, is $149.5 million. The luxury tax is set for $210 million which gives Middleton $60.5 million to spend without going over the tax. Middleton has hinted that, with losses suffered in 2020 and uncertainty over how many fans will be in the stands or games will be played in ‘21, the team would pull back in free agency this off-season to compensate.
So let’s say the Phils only want to spend another $40 million. At $25 million per season, that would still leave the Phils some wiggle room to add another back-of-the-rotation starter and bullpen pieces on one or two-year deals. Hopefully the team has a competent general manager or president of baseball operations in time to help with those decisions but, if not, Middleton can certainly pull off a Realmuto deal on his own.
I believe, with no inside information whatsoever, that Middleton is willing to pony up the dough for one impact player this off-season and that J.T. is the guy he’d be most willing on whom to spend his cash.
The Phillies’ Desperate Need
The drop-off from J.T. to James McCann, Yadier Molina, Wilson Ramos, Jason Castro, Kurt Suzuki or Mike Zunino is significant. McCann would be the best option but doesn’t offer the same upside as Realmuto, and while Andrew Knapp’s .849 OPS this season was impressive and manager Joe Girardi sure seems enchanted with Rafael Marchan, going into 2021 with those two players atop the depth chart would be a significant drop-off.
Realmuto plays a position in which there is a staggeringly low number of quality options, and he’s in the middle of his prime. Were he to leave, the possibilities facing the Phillies behind the plate would be inferior, to be sure.
John Middleton signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year contract knowing full well that the last five-to-seven years of the deal may not deliver the value the early years would. In his first season in Philly, Harper put up a 4.3 bWAR and last year, prorated over a full 162-game schedule, would have been worth 4.7 bWAR. There may be only another four or five years where Harper is a four-to-five-win player.
The Phillies need to take advantage of Bryce Harper’s prime, as well as Aaron Nola’s, Zack Wheeler’s and Rhys Hoskins’. They need to take advantage of the one rising star on their roster, Alec Bohm, and hope players like Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura have something left in the tank.
If the Phils don’t re-sign Realmuto, it would be a strong signal they are content to take a step back in 2021, an act that would bely intelligence. Harper, Nola, Wheeler and Hoskins only have so many years at their peaks, and now is the time to take advantage of them.
Not only that, Harper has made it clear a number of times how important he believes Realmuto is to the Phillies. Not signing Realmuto after refusing to engage in contract negotiations prior to the 2020 off-season due to luxury tax concerns, would send a terrible message to a player who is contractually obligated to pull a Phils jersey over his head through the year 2031.
Familiarity With Philadelphia
Even though they didn’t sign him to an extension in either of the previous two off-seasons, Realmuto did seem to enjoy his time in Philly. The city loves him and he seems to love the city. Certainly, money will talk, as Realmuto wants to put future catchers into a higher astral plane, financially, but all things being equal, it’s reasonable to assume Realmuto would very much embrace re-signing with the Phils, team up with Harper for the next five years, and live in a city that has so fully embraced him.
At the end of the day, there are more reasons that would point to Realmuto’s return to Philadelphia than to him leaving, which is why I predict Realmuto will be back in a Phillies uniform in 2021. There’s not much else regarding the Phillies to be positive about, but this is one thing I’m choosing to be optimistic about.
On the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, I talked much more about Realmuto’s contract situation with Justin Klugh & Liz Roscher, as well as lots of reasons why you shouldn’t want Trevor Bauer on the Phillies as well as the latest front office rumors and notes.