CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A few hours after signing the richest contract in American sports history, Bryce Harper told the world, without anybody asking, that new Phillies teammate J.T. Realmuto is “my favorite player in the game.”
Flattering, right? Absolutely, Realmuto said Tuesday. But the All-Star catcher also made a confession: He hasn’t always been as kind to Harper.
“We faced the [Washington Nationals] so many times over the years, and I liked to get in his ear a little bit when he came up to the plate,” Realmuto said, a mischievous smile creeping across his face. “I’d mess with him sometimes. We had some fun with that.”
Fun? What kind of fun?
“Can’t tell you that,” Realmuto said. “Can’t give my secrets away.”
It couldn’t have been too bad. After all, Harper has been almost unrelenting in his praise of Realmuto.
Last season, after Nationals catcher Matt Wieters was injured, Harper openly lobbied general manager Mike Rizzo to pry Realmuto from the rebuilding Miami Marlins. Harper playfully put a Nationals hat on Realmuto’s head before a team photo at the All-Star Game last July. And a few weeks later, after Realmuto beat the Nationals with an RBI single, Harper said, “If that guy was on our side, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“It means a lot to me,” Realmuto said after going 1-for-2 with a walk and catching Aaron Nola and Nick Pivetta in the Phillies’ 2-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. “For a guy with that pedigree and that type of ballplayer to think of me as his favorite player is awesome. We’ve had some good battles playing against each other over the years. He’s always been one of my favorite guys to compete against. We got to know each other well over the years. Definitely excited to work with him.”
Better late than never, according to Harper, whose chances of finally playing with Realmuto improved on Feb. 7 when the Phillies acquired the 27-year-old catcher for a three-player package that included top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez. It was a move that signaled the Phillies’ seriousness about transitioning from a nearly four-year rebuild into a playoff contender.
Three weeks later, Harper agreed to a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies. And while that deal has predictably left baseball buzzing, to say nothing of the reaction of Phillies fans back home, the Realmuto trade might have an even bigger impact on the team’s fortunes this season.
Not only does Realmuto figure to bat in the middle of the Phillies’ reloaded order, but he also will work with a young starting rotation that has not yet tapped its full potential. If Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin are going to achieve staying power as major-league starters, Realmuto will be the steadying force behind the plate who can help them.
“I think he’s going to help a lot,” Pivetta said. “For me, personally, the guy is an All-Star catcher, he’s been around, he’s a very intelligent guy. And he’s able to command the baseball field really well. When you have a presence like him on the field, it’s a good thing.”
Realmuto was familiar with the repertoire of each Phillies starter from having faced them often over the past few years. But he has spent most of spring training trying to get to know their personalities, what makes them tick, and how to wring the most out of them.
For Realmuto, that has meant taking the pitchers to dinner or joining them for golf outings. Last Sunday, he made the 2 ½-hour drive to Fort Myers with Jake Arrieta for a start against the Minnesota Twins.
“Stuff like that just helps build a rapport with them, and you can go from there,” Realmuto said. “It helps you understand how to communicate with them. Sometimes you have to get into certain guys, other guys you have to coddle them a little more. Everybody handles situations differently.”
But there’s one thing that Realmuto says is universal for each member of the rotation: He believes in their ability.
“I’ll tell you, these five guys were my least favorite rotation to face in the division last year from a pure stuff standpoint,” Realmuto said. “We might not have the names everybody else has, but from top to bottom, their stuff is there. And it wasn’t just [ace Aaron] Nola. Pivetta’s got nasty stuff; Velasquez has got disgusting stuff; Eflin works the ball, and he can do whatever he wants with it. Those guys are so much fun to catch. I'm really looking forward to it.”
Almost as much as Harper is looking forward to teaming up with his favorite player in baseball.
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