CLEARWATER, Fla. — J.T. Realmuto did not yet know the result of his arbitration case when he stood Thursday afternoon inside a batting cage underneath Spectrum Field. Less than 24 hours earlier, Realmuto and his agent, Jeff Berry, had argued in Arizona against the Phillies, fighting what proved to be a losing battle to earn the catcher a record-setting contract.
And now he was back in Florida, preparing for a season that is just five weeks away. The arbitration process — the Phillies won when an arbitrator selected their $10 million offer over Realmuto’s $12.4 million request — lasted just a day.
But as opening day nears, so does the start of Realmuto’s final season before hitting free agency. The countdown to sign Realmuto to a long-term contract begins. The Phillies won arbitration, but they cannot afford to lose Realmuto.
“Right now, I’m here. I’m trying to get ready for the season,” Realmuto said Friday morning when asked if the arbitration process had changed his outlook for a contract extension. “What we went through in arbitration, what we went through in the hearing, doesn’t change anything from my outlook.”
Realmuto hit .275 last season with a .820 OPS and 25 homers. He was the team’s lone All-Star, led the Phillies in WAR, and was the National League’s Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner among catchers. The Phillies — from general manager Matt Klentak to manager Joe Girardi to the team’s marketing arm — have labeled Realmuto as “the best catcher in baseball.” And it’s hard to dispute that.
But when it came to arbitration, that label provided little help to Realmuto. His agent wanted to compare Realmuto to non-catchers who had similar statistical profiles but play positions that typically earn more money.
The previous record for a catcher in his third year of arbitration was Matt Wieters’ $8.3 million contract in 2015 with Baltimore. Realmuto’s camp knew it would clear that bar, but it wanted to soar over it.
With a win, Realmuto hoped to increase the value of catchers, so his camp built a case around him being compared to other position players. But the Phillies compared him to his contemporaries, and catchers typically earn less than, say, a third baseman. The arbitrators sided with the Phillies.
“I’m disappointed in the system more than anything,” Realmuto said. “Obviously, I’m not disappointed about making $10 million. Like I said before, I’m fortunate to be in the position that I’m in. That part I’m not disappointed with.
"It’s just the system and how catchers are treated in the system. Obviously, I wanted to advance it a little bit and do something for future catchers, and that didn’t work out for us. In that aspect, I’m disappointed, but not disappointed in my salary.”
Berry told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal on Thursday that the decision “makes a mockery of common sense.” Berry compared Realmuto to Anthony Rendon, who earned $12.3 million in 2018 to avoid arbitration with the Nationals. Like Realmuto, Rendon was entering arbitration for the third time. He was then a career .280 career hitter with a .812 OPS and 78 homers in 634 games. Realmuto, in 685 career games, has a .278 average, 84 homers, and a .779 OPS.
“It’s so outdated,” Realmuto said of the system. “There’s a separate catchers’ market. That’s what the team’s main case was on, that you can’t go outside of the catchers’ market. But if you line my numbers up with position players, that’s where our figure comes into play.
"It’s never happened before where catchers go out of the catchers’ market. But it’s not in the rules that says you can’t. The team knows that they had a pretty strong case just for that, and they took advantage of it.”
The Phillies would prefer to sign Realmuto to a long-term extension before they leave Clearwater, wanting to limit the in-season distractions for one of their most important players. They also know the importance of keeping the player whom they forfeited their top pitching prospect to acquire.
But Realmuto said he hasn’t yet thought about an extension. His focus for the last few months, he said, has been on arbitration.
That should soon change. His camp will likely try to set a precedent for free-agent catchers and exceed the eight-year, $23 million-per-year extension that Joe Mauer signed in 2010 with Minnesota. But Realmuto said he hasn’t spoken to his agent about any of that.
The Phillies will want to start that conversation soon or else risk losing Realmuto after just two seasons. They did not trade Sixto Sanchez, Jorge Alfaro, and Will Stewart with the idea that they were getting just two seasons of Realmuto.
Another session in the batting cage was just hours away. Opening day was a day closer than it was Thursday, and the countdown continued to Realmuto’s free agency.