Late last week, confidence was high the Phillies were going to sign J.T. Realmuto, the team’s great white whale this off-season. Hope reigned that Dave Dombrowski would not let the best catcher in baseball be “the one that got away,” and the optimism was rational.
Virtually every team that had been rumored to be a suitor for his services — the Mets, Yankees, Astros, Angels and Blue Jays most specifically — had either filled their catching needs with other players or signed a big-time free agent to a huge deal, which seemed to leave them without the cash to spend more than $100 million on a contract for Realmuto.
Then, Robert Murray reported a thing.
Braves circling on free-agent catcher J.T. Realmuto, according to league sources. Other teams on the west coast are expressing interest.— Robert Murray (@ByRobertMurray) January 21, 2021
Of course, the immediate reaction among Phillies fans was reasoned and not at all hysterical.
I’m not prepared to lose Realmuto to the Braves.— John Stolnis (@JohnStolnis) January 21, 2021
A little while later, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi didn’t help calm any fears.
But thankfully, another baseball reporter named Jon lent some perspective.
While Braves checked in on Realmuto as @ByRobertMurray reported, most see it as a stretch they’d go past $100M for a catcher when they have d’Arnaud who won the Silver Slugger last year. GM Alex Anthopoulos has tried before for JT and can surprise but this seems like long shot.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 22, 2021
As Morosi noted, the Braves already have a catcher who smoked the ball with regularity in last year’s pandemic-shortened season. Travis d’Arnaud, a former Phillies top prospect and one of the players traded away in the Roy Halladay deal, hit .321/.386/.533 for a .919 OPS and a 138 OPS+. He hit nine homers, knocked in 34 and was awarded the Silver Slugger for the catcher position. He is a pending free agent, but is set to only make $8 million in 2021.
There are other reasons why Atlanta doesn’t make sense as a landing spot for Realmuto. They have the reigning MVP, first baseman Freddie Freeman, who will also be a free agent after this season, and one would assume the team will need to set aside a chunk of change to re-sign him. Could they afford a $100-120 million deal for Realmuto and an even bigger contract for Freeman a year from now?
The Braves have never been big spenders. In 2020, they spent $63 million in the pandemic-shortened season, 16th in MLB, and are projected to be in that same area in ‘21. So it would be a stretch for a thrifty team to suddenly become among the biggest spenders in baseball and throw out a huge contract for a player they don’t really need.
However, if Atlanta’s management has decided now is the time to invest in a young team that has won three straight NL East titles, the addition of Realmuto would be huge. It would not only strengthen the Braves’ lineup and defense behind the dish, but would also hurt a division rival. They could trade d’Arnaud to a catcher-needy team (probably not the Phillies) for some prospects and add Realmuto to solidify their own catcher position for the next five years.
But if Atlanta’s plan is to play Realmuto in other spots around the diamond, then adding him on a five-year deal worth nine figures doesn’t make sense. While J.T. is one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, his OPS the last three years (.825) was tied for 48th out of 164 qualified MLB players at all positions. The other two players he was tied with were Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, both of whom were added by the Nationals this off-season for a combined $13.5 million in 2021. His offense alone is not worth a $20+ million per season deal if he’s not behind the plate full-time.
So how real is the Braves’ interest? Murray’s use of the phrase “circling on” Realmuto leaves a lot of room for interpretation. “Circling in” on Realmuto would sound more ominous, like a vulture ready to pounce on its prey. “Circling on” sounds more like a team checking in on the state of negotiations. It’s likely Atlanta is feigning interest in order to drive up the price for the Phillies, and it’s also more likely Realmuto’s agent is the source behind Murray’s report, also in an effort to move the Phils’ number northward.
After an initial scare, a rational analysis of the situation still points to the Phillies being in the driver’s seat, with the Braves acting as an irritant in this case. Lots can change during the Hot Stove, but for now, optimism should still be strong in Philadelphia will retain the best catcher in baseball.