On the eve of the Super Bowl in 2019, while most of sporting America fixated on TB12′s pursuit of a sixth ring, Matt Klentak couldn’t shake the thought of a different set of initials.
Whither J.T. Realmuto?
Klentak had asked that question on and off for the better part of 15 months. Each time, the Phillies general manager didn’t get anywhere with Michael Hill, his Miami Marlins counterpart. If Realmuto would follow former teammates Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich out of South Florida, he didn’t seem to be bound for Philadelphia.
But it never hurts to keep trying. So Klentak picked up his phone again that night and lobbed a text message to Hill.
Four days later, Realmuto was a Phillie.
That was all it took -- four days, plus a year and a half of check-ins -- to hammer out a four-player trade. For two years of having the best catcher in baseball, the Phillies gave up young catcher Jorge Alfaro, stud pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, single-A left-hander Will Stewart, and $250,000 in international bonus slot money.
Fast-forward 19 months. The Phillies and Marlins are locked in a seven-game series in Miami and jockeying for the playoff berth that accompanies second place in the National League East. Realmuto is as good as ever but only a few months from free agency, the source of Phillies fans' angst. And Sanchez is the Marlins' most electric pitcher since the late Jose Fernandez.
With Sanchez set for his fifth career start Sunday in the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies, what better time to revisit a blockbuster that figures to shape the Phillies-Marlins narrative for years to come. The details that follow are based on conversations with multiple sources from both teams.
Late in the 2017 season, an ownership group led by investment broker Bruce Sherman and Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter bought the Marlins for $1.2 billion -- and announced an everything-must-go fire sale.
The Phillies, like a lot of teams, browsed the inventory.
Stanton was the first of the Marlins stars to go, shipped out on Dec. 9, 2017, to the New York Yankees, who took on a sizable chunk of the $295 million left on his contract. But although the rebuilding Phillies averaged 95 losses in the previous three seasons, they showed interest in Stanton.
Ozuna was next. With two seasons left before free agency, the leftfielder went to the St. Louis Cardinals for four prospects, including pitchers Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen.
Some in the Marlins organization advocated for ownership to rebuild around Yelich and Realmuto. The latter was three years shy of free agency; the former had signed a club-friendly contract that ran through 2021. But the exodus continued in January 2018, when the Marlins dealt Yelich to the Milwaukee Brewers for four players.
Infatuated with Yelich for years, the Phillies tried putting together a prospect package for him. They were unsuccessful, but like their talks for Stanton, it helped inform which of their prospects the Marlins liked best.
One thing was clear: Sanchez “was always on our radar,” one Marlins official said.
With the Phillies unexpectedly contending for a playoff spot in 2018, they discussed a July blockbuster for Manny Machado. But they also gauged Realmuto’s availability before ultimately acquiring catcher Wilson Ramos from the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Marlins held Realmuto at the trade deadline, but by the end of the 2018 season, it seemed clear they would move him. It was only a matter of when.
Staying in touch
In plotting their path back to contention, the Phillies targeted the 2018-19 offseason -- the Winter of Machado and Bryce Harper -- to make their big move. But other needs had to be addressed, too.
The Phillies traded Carlos Santana and J.P. Crawford to the Seattle Mariners for shortstop Jean Segura, a deal that enabled them to move Rhys Hoskins back to first base. They signed free-agent left fielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson.
And every few weeks, Klentak checked in with Hill about Realmuto.
The answer, invariably, was no.
At the outset of the offseason, Jeff Berry, Realmuto’s agent at Creative Artists Agency, told MLB Network Radio that his client didn’t intend to sign an extension with the Marlins and predicted that Realmuto “will definitely be wearing a different uniform by the start of spring training.”
Predictably, calls poured in. Reporting linked Realmuto to about a dozen teams, including the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, and Houston Astros. Hill eventually told MLB Network Radio that he heard from 17 teams.
The Phillies weren’t sure why they couldn’t get traction. Maybe the Marlins didn’t want to trade Realmuto within the division. Maybe they just liked other farm systems better. Phillies officials figured the Dodgers, with young catchers Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz, matched up well.
But the Marlins never shied away from dealing with NL East rivals, according to multiple sources. The team’s approach was always to get the best return wherever it existed. Some Marlins evaluators pushed a deal with the Braves because of their stable of young pitchers (Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Ian Anderson) and position prospects (Austin Riley, Christian Pache).
It might not have helped the Phillies that Sanchez, with his high-90s fastball and comparisons to Pedro Martinez ever since late scout Bart Braun discovered him in the Dominican Republic, had to be shut down after eight starts at high-A Clearwater in 2018 and skipped the Arizona Fall League because of elbow inflammation.
There were also whispers about his conditioning, specifically a tendency to put a few unwanted pounds onto his barely 6-foot frame. But the Phillies chalked it up to youth (Sanchez turned 20 in the summer of 2018) rather than a red flag about his work ethic. He remained solidly their most coveted prospect.
Other than exchanging a few ideas and sketching out potential proposals, the Phillies didn’t make headway on a Realmuto trade. But it was February now, and pitchers and catchers were less than a week from reporting to spring training. Could the Marlins really bring Realmuto into camp after a winter of trade talks involving literally half the league?
If nothing else, Klentak wanted to find out.
Making the pieces fit
Klentak and Hill hadn’t been in touch for a few weeks. Once Hill reciprocated interest, the trade came together quickly because of the Marlins' familiarity with the Phillies' farm system.
Looking back, it all made almost too much sense.
Realmuto came with only two seasons of control at reasonable salaries ($5.9 million last year, $10 million this year) determined through arbitration. The Marlins didn’t expect to contend in 2019 or 2020, while the Phillies were going for it with upward of $300 million -- more, as it turned out -- burning a hole in managing partner John Middleton’s wallet for Machado or Harper.
In meeting with Harper, the Phillies realized how much he admired Realmuto. Trading for Harper’s favorite player could only help them land the star right fielder. At a minimum, strongly pursuing a Realmuto trade would signal that the Phillies had a win-now mentality that appealed to Harper.
Given the teams' vastly different timelines and motivations, Realmuto fit much more neatly within the Phillies' competitive window than the Marlins'.
It was a matter, then, of fitting the pieces together. Hill prioritized talent and control. Sanchez and Alfaro possessed both.
As the rebuilding continued, the Marlins could develop Sanchez at the upper levels of the minor leagues. With raw power and a rocket-launcher arm, and with five years until free agency, Alfaro could fill the void left by Realmuto’s departure and still contribute to the Marlins' next contending team.
The teams talked about other players to round out the deal. Ultimately, the Marlins bought high on Stewart, a 20th-round draft pick who went 8-1 with a 2.06 ERA in a breakout 2018 at low-A Lakewood, and took the bonus money rather than a fourth player.
But Sanchez was the real jackpot. Just as the Phillies risked having Realmuto for only two seasons -- and given the apparent impasse in extension talks, there’s a chance he signs elsewhere this winter -- the Marlins bet on the health of Sanchez’s arm.
The difference: With the ability to control Sanchez for six major-league seasons, the Marlins had a longer runway.
COVID-19 further shortened the Phillies' time with Realmuto, but nobody foresaw that 19 months ago. He has been as good as advertised behind the plate and gotten the offensive boost from Citizens Bank Park that the Phillies expected. Through Thursday, he was batting .273 and slugging .504 (compared with .442 with the Marlins) with 36 homers and 112 RBIs in 183 games since the trade.
Alfaro has produced numbers similar to those that he had with the Phillies (.257 average, .410 slugging, 19 homers in 148 games through Thursday). Stewart has sputtered, posting a 5.43 ERA last season at single-A Jupiter.
And Sanchez? The 22-year-old right-hander made his big-league debut Aug. 22 and is 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and a 25-2 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in four starts.
“If he stays healthy, he’s going to give people fits for a long time,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after Sanchez blanked Atlanta for six innings Tuesday night. “That’s the total package right there.”
Ultimately, then, both teams accomplished what they wanted.
The Phillies landed Harper, paired him with Realmuto, and made the transition from rebuilding to contending. They fell short of the playoffs last season, but a postseason appearance this year would validate the decision to go all-in. Re-signing Realmuto would go even further.
And the Marlins acquired a pitcher who has the look of a future ace.
“I think it was a deal that made sense for both sides,” Klentak said. “We added immediate impact to our club, while they received more future value. That was the goal of both teams at the time of the trade, and that’s the way it has played out thus far.”