The Phillies did what they had to do.
Team president of baseball operations (can we find a shorter way to say this at some point?) Dave Dombrowski and team owner John Middleton ponied up the dough and signed J.T. Realmuto to a record contract for catchers, $115.5 million over five years, $100,000 more per season ($23.1 million) than the previous record-holder, Joe Mauer. It is the richest free agent deal ever signed by a catcher, beating the previous record set by Brian McCann at $85 million (Joe Mauer and Buster Posey’s deals were contract extensions with their existing teams), and brings J.T. back to the place he’s called home for the last two years.
Whether the pandemic ended up working out in the Phils’ favor is arguable. The $115.5 million contract is likely the kind of money Middleton was hoping to keep Realmuto for last spring. The bidding war Phils fans feared would take place this winter for Realmuto’s services never materialized due to a pandemic-induced reluctance by most teams to spend money on players. The Phillies also lucked out when the Mets chose not to pursue Realmuto and instead signed James McCann to a free agent deal, a move that undercut J.T.’s market severely.
While it appears the Phillies won the day, Realmuto became the highest paid catcher of all time on an average annual value basis. In terms of real-world cash, Middleton will pay Realmuto just $10 million this year, with the other $10 million of his $20 million salary in 2021 being paid in $5 million increments in 2026 and ‘27. It is a deal that gives the owner some flexibility at a time of lost revenue from a shortened 2020 season with no fans and prospects lingering of a similar season this year.
Friend of the Hittin’ Season podcast, ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, released an updated version of his ZiPS projections which sees Realmuto’s production over a full 2021 season thusly: .272/.333/.490 with 26 HRs, 98 RBIs, and OPS+ of 114 and an fWAR of 4.1.
Those numbers can be matched by a scant few other catchers in baseball, and Realmuto does it on a year-in, year-out basis. Having an offensively capable catcher who also provides top-notch defense and base running is like owning a unicorn. You don’t let those types of players go.
Of course, as the ZiPS projections note, retaining Realmuto does not make the Phillies the favorites in the NL East. In fact, it doesn’t even make them a .500 ball club.
That the addition, or re-acquisition, of Realmuto doesn’t catapult the Phillies into contender status is not surprising. They missed the postseason last year with him and adding him back onto the team essentially only keeps their heads afloat. According to ZiPS, the most likely outcome has the Phils finishing in 4th place, 80-82, 11 games behind the Braves, 10 behind the Mets and still six games worse than the Washington Nationals, with a 9.5% chance to make the postseason.
Additional holes remain, most notably at shortstop, the starting rotation and the bullpen. An upgrade in center field could also be useful. Andrelton Simmons, Freddy Galvis and Marcus Semien have all agreed to free agent contracts in recent days, however, former Phil Didi Gregorius remains available. His left-handed bat and competent defense at shortstop would be a most welcome addition. Gregorius is said to be seeking a multi-year deal, and with the other shortstop options consisting of Jean Segura or Scott Kingery starting everyday, a reunion with Didi would seem to make sense.
If Middleton can afford it.
The Phils can make up more ground in the standings if they sign Gregorius, who would have been worth a prorated 3.8 fWAR over a 162-game season last year, but even that still likely leaves them in 4th place, with Spencer Howard and Vince Velasquez starting every fifth day. That’s less than ideal. Rick Porcello, Cole Hamels, Jake Odorizzi, James Paxton and a slew of other pitchers are still available to fill out the rotation, and relievers Alex Colome, Mark Melancon, Joakim Soria and others would help support a bullpen that almost has to be better than last year’s. Jackie Bradley Jr. is a center fielder who would give the team a much needed infusion of defense with some pop, and/or the Phils could look to fill an infield spot with Kolten Wong at second base and play Segura/Kingery at shortstop.
Adding Realmuto to the 2021 Phillies doesn’t make them any better than they were last season, but it doesn’t make them worse, and that’s the key.
A future without J.T. behind the plate looked bleak. There were no answers at that position in the minors, and few options in free agency in the next few seasons that offered the kind of production Realmuto will likely provide. The addition of Realmuto doesn’t make the Phillies a playoff team in 2021, but if everything breaks right, they can do it, even with only minimal additions.
However, not adding him would have assured the Phils they would be out of the postseason mix this season and likely in future seasons, too.
The Phillies had to do this. They had no choice. They had to keep the fanbase interested, give fans a reason to hope. More additions are needed to truly compete in the toughest division in baseball, but at least with Realmuto back in the fold, there is hope.
On the latest edition of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh, Chris Jones and I conducted an emergency podcast breaking down the signing with more discussion on the rest of the off-season could look like for the Phillies. Check it out!