With any luck, this post will be headed to a time capsule in a couple weeks, a discarded relic of a graciously brief time when it felt dirty to even acknowledge the darker timeline of a 2021 Phillies team without baseball’s top catcher. And honestly? I wouldn’t blame you if you’d prefer to plug your ears, shut your eyes, and la-la-la your way out of sight and earshot (even if that’s not quite an invitation to warp down to the comments to say something snide about the #content). If anything, laying bare the stark reality of uncertainty that the Phils would inhabit if Realmuto walks should serve to underscore the importance of getting a deal done.
Which brings us here, to plan for a future no one expects to come to pass but still might: What are the Phillies going to do if they don’t extend J.T. Realmuto past the 2020 season?
I know, I know. No one’s considering this kind of thing because it’s so widely assumed that the Phils and J.T. will find their way toward a long-term agreement that any suggestion to the contrary is a waste of time. And maybe so! But until the ink dries on a new contract, there has to be a Plan B. We all know the team would be considered negligent if they didn’t have one. So what would such a Plan B look like? Is there a reasonable path toward the Phillies still being a legitimate competitor with a different situation at catcher in ‘21? With player and team headed to arbitration this week ahead of (presumably) more serious long-term negotiations, here’s a glimpse into an alternate reality.
As the most experienced incumbent, Knapp steps to the front of the line by default. He’ll be 29 for the 2021 season and arbitration-eligible for the second time, drawing an increase over his current $710 thousand salary.
Let’s focus on the positives. Knapp was much better in the second half of 2019 (.271/.346/.414 in 79 PA) than he was in the first (.152/.291/.227 in 81 PA) thanks to a steady August and a September in which he actually got some playing time once Realmuto’s season ended early due to injury. He also...well, uh...he’s a switch-hitter.
In reality, Knapp has shown himself to be an average-ish defensive catcher with, at times, an eye for a walk at the plate, but not much else. As far as depth goes, he’s the kind of upper-level option you don’t mind having as a Plan C, but his being the primary backup and frequently thrust into big spots as a PH off the bench — as he was last season — falls short of ideal circumstance. He would not be the everyday catcher on a team with division championship aspirations and beyond.
A lot is still unknown about the soon-to-be-24-year-old, who collected his first Major League hit and RBI late last September. With rosters expanding to 26 players, it’s entirely possible he’s carried as an extra option in 2020.
But that wouldn’t permit him much playing time, which is what the team would need in order to see just how viable he could be as a regular catcher. His numbers at Double-A and Triple-A the past two years have been good — 21 homers apiece, .825 and .851 OPSes respectively — although some concern lingers about his defensive abilities.
What feels more likely is that, with the hope of Realmuto getting an extension still within reach, Grullon gets regular reps at Triple-A to (ideally) make him more appealing as a trade asset. I’m sure the team wouldn’t necessarily be upset if he succeeded Knapp as Plan B, but Grullon’s prospect value is still decent enough that he’d be a trade chip come July.
But in this alternate reality, Grullon couldn’t easily be traded if Realmuto was known to be leaving town. If he repeats his Triple-A numbers, he likely overtakes Knapp’s spot and becomes the leading starting candidate, with the team then pivoting to adding a more defensive-minded backup as a spell guy or late-inning replacement should his defensive questions persist.
If you’re squeamish about Knapp’s offensive numbers, you may want to skip looking at this Mississippi native’s line from last year at Double-A Reading. But in spite of that down year at the dish, the club thinks highly enough of Lartigue to have extended at invite to Spring Training here in 2020. As of this moment, he’s not in the discussion for even a look at the MLB level or a 40-man roster spot. A rebound year would help.
The club’s top catching prospect is a nice blend of offense and defense. He’s not overwhelming in either aspect yet, but will be just 21 years old later this month and figures to see time in Double-A this year if all goes well. That still leaves him as a long shot for 2021 planning, but if there’s a dark horse among the internal candidates, this might just be your guy.
Duran, Marchan, Lartigue, and Grullon were all born in February. Does that mean anything? Yeah probably not. Anyway.
Duran couldn’t quite replicate his 2018 breakout numbers from Lakewood with Clearwater, so he doesn’t look to be rising as fast as he once was. But he’s another young one (22 this month), and there’s time. If things get off to a better start this year, he might join Marchan in moving up the ranks. Still, likely not a 2021 option.
Pending Free Agents
Here is a list, from MLBTradeRumors, of the catchers currently in line to become free agents after the 2020 season. Realmuto excluded, naturally. Three of them have options for ‘21, which are also noted.
Pending 2021 Free Agents
|Player||2021 Age||2021 Option|
|Player||2021 Age||2021 Option|
No answers here. As someone who believes in framing as a skill but not yet as a metric, I have a hard time being talked into Mike Zunino and just how much he would add given the negative of his bat, and still he might be the best of the realistic options up there (depending on what you think of James McCann’s breakout, and assuming Yadier Molina stays put). All of them are mostly of the same class at this stage in their respective careers, honestly, and none would really cushion the blow of losing J.T. Few options of any kind would.
With the pending free agent crop looking like a bit of a bust, what happens if we turn our attention to players under contract or control with other teams through at least 2021? Having to turn to the trade block to pick up a catcher for the second time in three years is a bit of a bitter pill the team would prefer to avoid, but things at least look a little better there than in free agency.
The potential trade crop is headlined by the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, who turns 28 this year and possesses one of the best blends of offense and defense the position has to offer. Milwaukee’s Omar Narvaez, who’s already been traded each of the past two seasons, is another guy who’d offer some cushion on the offensive drop after J.T., although his defense would lose a bit more ground. The White Sox’s McCann is in a similar boat, again depending on what you think of his breakout. There’s also Cleveland’s Roberto Perez, who enjoyed a massive homer surge last year like so many others, but carries a stronger defensive reputation (and may earn enough service time to be a 2021 free agent). Ditto Boston’s Christian Vazquez, who could also potentially test free agency after 2020.
After that, things drop off a bit to the tier that includes the likes of Colorado’s Tony Wolters, Cubs NRI Josh Phegley, Cincinnati’s Tucker Barnhart, and Baltimore’s Pedro Severino. And the possibilities that, at the moment, stretch credulity include Molina, the Giants’ Buster Posey, Minnesota’s Mitch Garver, and Former Phillies Great and current Met Wilson Ramos. It’s not a market lacking for options, but the quality and feasibility varies pretty wildly.
The team has long sold how strongly it feels about keeping Realmuto around long-term, and J.T. sure seems willing to play ball, too. I’ll be as happy as anyone else to eventually toss this into the What Could Have Been archives.