What we know for sure about J.T. Realmuto’s contract situation is that he will be a member of the Phillies for the entirety of the 2020 season. Whether that’s 60 games and then home for October or a potential postseason run remains to be seen, but Phillies fans are guaranteed no more than that.
It was hoped general manager Matt Klentak would be able to reach a contract extension with his star signal-caller, but management seems to believe Realmuto’s asking price will have to come down in free agency, given how most clubs are likely to reign in spending after a regular season with no fans in the stands and revenues severely affected.
Allowing Realmuto to reach free agency is a calculated risk, one the Phils could end up regretting. But suppose for a moment Realmuto does become a free agent and signs with another team. Is there anything Klentak could do to make it all better?
The free agent crop of catchers this off-season is less-than-stellar.
Realmuto is head and shoulders better than anyone on this list, and replacing him with any of them would be a huge letdown. Wilson Ramos, who was a Phillie for about a minute-and-a-half back in 2018, would probably be the best option, as he’d turn just 33 years old next year and is coming off a 2019 season in which he hit .288/.351/.416 for New York with 14 home runs and 19 doubles in 524 plate appearances and a 2.2 bWAR. Yadier Molina will probably be retired by 2021, and the rest of the names listed there are all substandard offensive players.
THE TRADE MARKET
If the Phillies went with a one-year stopgap measure, are there any free agents following the ‘21 season that could be of interest? And seeing as how those players will be on expiring contracts, could any of these catchers be available in trade this winter?
Buster Posey is certainly intriguing, but he’s opted out of 2020 so, at age 35, he will have missed the entire season previous but with one fewer season of wear and tear on his body. Travis d’Arnaud is a decent player, but underwhelming. Salavador Perez will be just 32 years old and has made six straight All-Star teams thanks mostly to his outstanding defense. Again, there is no J.T. Realmuto here.
So let’s say the Phillies sign a one-year stopgap catcher like Ramos this off-season or, for the sake of saving money, decide to hand the starting job to third-string catcher Deivy Grullon, in the hopes he provides enough offense not to sink the lineup. That would be a serious downgrade at a very important position that they would have to make up elsewhere. Are there any other free agents they could sign this winter that would have as big an impact?
There are a number of decent players on this list. Houston’s George Springer would have been someone to get excited about, but he is a year older than Realmuto and the Astros cheating scandal has everyone wondering how much of his success is real and how much was obtained via shenanigans. Giancarlo Stanton is a stud slugger and, if he opts out, would be a big power bat. But he gets hurt a lot and would be relegated to DH duties only. Marcell Ozuna will be one of the younger free agents out there, and while he’s solid, he is not a superstar.
But none of those players will make you forget about Realmuto leaving. Only one player would.
Mookie Betts, kids. That’s about it.
Betts will be just 28 years old next year and is probably the second-best player in baseball. Since he became the everyday center fielder for the Red Sox in 2015, he is second in WAR (35.4) behind only Mike Trout (44.2). He’s a dynamic offensive player who hits for average and power, has great speed and plays top-notch defense in center.
For a player like that, the cost will be prohibitive. If you thought Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 million was something, wait until you see Betts’ deal. Even with teams pulling back due to COVID-19, you can be sure the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees or some other team with big pockets will pony up $400 million to sign him. Such a contract would obviously put the Phils way over the salary cap, but it would also give them the best outfield in baseball.
But because of the balance sheet implications, the chances of signing Betts are remote, and the most logical course of action is to re-sign Realmuto when he becomes a free agent this off-season. Klentak traded for him last year with the intention of signing him long-term, and one would imagine that’s still the plan. But one never knows what’s going to happen once a player hits the open market, and Realmuto is a guy who has always held out for what he felt he was worth.
Catchers who excel both offensively and defensively are rare gems, and Realmuto is certainly a jewel amongst the rest of MLB’s soon-to-be free agent receivers in 2021 and ‘22. The Phillies have to re-sign him, or grab Mookie Betts instead. There’s really no other rational choice.
On Episode 400 of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I discussed all our ideas on how to maintain happiness if Realmuto leaves, plus we previewed the upcoming season and shared our news and notes from the last two exhibition games against the Nationals and Orioles. Tune in!