J.T. Realmuto played against Bryce Harper for five years, but those seasons as division rivals did not allow the catcher to know what to expect last spring when the Phillies signed Harper three weeks after trading for Realmuto.
Was the $330 million superstar a diva? Did Harper care more about his personal brand than the team? Did he even want to win? Would he play hard?
Those worries were quickly washed away. Harper, Realmuto said on MLB Network after last season, is “one of the most misunderstood people in baseball.” Whatever he heard about Harper was untrue. The former rivals grew so close they moved their lockers next to each other, their wives became friends, and Harper told everyone that Realmuto was his “favorite player.”
Harper, Realmuto said, is an awesome teammate. And now that awesome teammate could be Realmuto’s biggest advocate as Realmuto moves closer to free agency.
The coronavirus pandemic has not only suspended the season, but it has barred teams from negotiating contract extensions. Major League Baseball’s roster freeze is preventing the Phillies from discussing a deal with Realmuto, who will become a free agent next offseason even if no games are played in 2020.
Each day places Realmuto closer to free agency. The only thing the Phillies can do is wait, knowing they are losing what should have been an exclusive time to negotiate with perhaps their most important player. It’s fair to be worried that the Phillies could lose the All-Star catcher, but Harper — the player with the loudest voice on the roster — is not concerned.
“Of course it’s shut down, but I don’t think anybody should fear us not getting J.T. back,” Harper said. “I want him more than anything, so I mean it’s something we need to make happen as an organization. But you know when that time comes then [general manager Matt] Klentak and [John] Middleton will make that decision and hopefully he’s back in Phillies red.”
The Phillies signed Harper last year to the richest free-agent contract in baseball history, making an investment that gives weight to his words. Harper met after last season with Middleton, letting the owner know what he thought needed to be done after a disappointing season. It’s safe to assume he was advocating then for his favorite player.
And if Harper is Realmuto’s biggest fan, Middleton might be No. 2. Middleton wrestled at Amherst College, giving him a common bond with Realmuto, who grew up in a family steeped in wrestling royalty. His uncle John Smith won two Olympic gold medals and is one of America’s all-time great wrestlers.
Middleton flew last October to Oklahoma to have lunch with Realmuto after the owner met with Harper. His affinity for Realmuto is enough that many inside the Phillies organization expect Middleton to do whatever it takes to keep Realmuto in “Phillies red,” like Harper said. Middleton’s own motivation will only be increased by Harper’s wishes. The Phillies don’t want to let down their $330 million superstar.
“I think the Phillies organization absolutely loves J.T. and our team absolutely loves him as well,” Harper said. “He’s the best catcher in baseball. He’s a great person. He’s a great family man. He’s a guy that we need in our clubhouse. I think the Phillies fans understand that as well. Us as an organization, we have to understand that he’s going to help us in the years to come, and if you want the best catcher in baseball, then we’ll make that happen.”
The Phillies defeated Realmuto in an arbitration hearing during spring training to determine his salary for 2020. The Phillies’ winning number was just $2 million less than the $12.4 million Realmuto was seeking. Realmuto said the Phillies took advantage of an outdated process, but he did not have hard feelings. The hearing, he said, would not affect contract negotiations.
Realmuto, as professional athletes usually do, would not reject the Phillies if they made the most lucrative offer just because they spurned him in arbitration. But there was no update, Realmuto said on March 5 about his negotiations. A week later, spring training was canceled. Negotiations are now banned and Realmuto is a month closer to becoming a free agent.
Perhaps the Phillies would have used the early months of the regular season to draw up a deal for Realmuto. Maybe they could have found common ground before Realmuto could talk to other teams as a free agent. Now they can’t even talk. If Realmuto reaches the open market, the Phillies will have competition to keep him. Realmuto’s day in “Phillies red” could be numbered, but Harper is not worried about losing his friend.
“I think you all know that we love J.T.,” Klentak said last week. “And he’s a player that we would love to have with us for the long haul. Once we got through his salary arbitration hearing in February, the next item on the agenda so to speak was to resume talks on a longer-term deal. This had to halt those discussions.”