Two days into spring training, six weeks before opening day, J.T. Realmuto learned Thursday that he has a broken right thumb.
The news isn’t great for the Phillies. But the timing could be worse.
Realmuto, fresh off becoming the highest-paid free-agent catcher ever, will have his thumb in a cast for two weeks. He likely will be sidelined for longer than that, and his return may be predicated at first on pain tolerance. But it’s premature for the Phillies to predict whether he will be in the lineup for the April 1 season opener against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
“We’re obviously going to be cautious with it,” Realmuto said via Zoom from Clearwater, Fla. “I feel pretty confident that after that two weeks it will be healed because it already feels quite a bit better than the day it happened. I’m confident I’ll be back by opening day, but you can’t set that in stone. If I have to miss the first three days of the season, we’d rather do that than absolutely rush back and have something linger a little longer.”
The freak injury occurred last week in a pre-spring training workout at the Phillies’ facility. Realmuto slid to block a dirt-diving curveball from lefty reliever Jose Alvarado and took the pitch off the thumb on his throwing hand.
Realmuto figured it was a bone bruise. But after feeling pain while throwing Wednesday during the Phillies’ first workout for pitchers and catchers, he underwent an MRI that revealed a nondisplaced avulsion fracture near the base of his thumb.
“Any time I put pressure on the ball with my thumb it just didn’t feel right,” Realmuto said. “I was still able to hit without any problem, so in my head I didn’t feel like it was fractured. But after not being able to throw for four or five days, we felt like we should probably get this looked at.
“I was kind of shocked when I found out.”
Realmuto, who turns 30 next month, has started 525 games behind the plate since 2016, more than any catcher except St. Louis Cardinals icon Yadier Molina (545). Andrew Knapp, who would step in as the primary backstop, got 72 at-bats last year and only 136 in 2019 as Realmuto’s understudy. Pitcher Aaron Nola referred to the popular star catcher this week as “the quarterback of the team.”
It isn’t a stretch to characterize him as the Phillies’ most indispensable player.
But opening day is 42 days away. Even if Realmuto isn’t healed by then, his return probably wouldn’t be much further off. His body might even benefit from not being taxed as much in spring training.
As a right-handed hitter, the injured thumb is on Realmuto’s top hand. Phillies manager Joe Girardi, a catcher for 15 seasons in the majors, said the bigger test will be for Realmuto to grip the ball to throw.
Girardi said the Phillies could keep Realmuto involved in camp by having him catch bullpen sessions and flip the ball to someone else to throw back to the mound.
“It will be a little weird at first,” Realmuto said. “Still, just getting to catch those guys and to be a part of the team.”
A bigger dilemma for the Phillies would be settling on a backup to Knapp. Rafael Marchan, a 21-year-old prospect, is on the 40-man roster after making his major-league debut last September. But they also signed 38-year-old veteran Jeff Mathis to a minor-league contract last week.
If Realmuto is sidelined for longer than expected, the Phillies might feel more comfortable with Mathis than Marchan.
“Those are decisions that we don’t have to make right now,” Girardi said. “Let’s just pray that [Realmuto] heals quickly.”
Three weeks ago, the Phillies and Realmuto agreed to a five-year, $115.5 million contract, ending an 11-month will-they-or-won’t-they saga that turned #SignJT into a rallying cry for fans and even a few teammates, including Bryce Harper.
Realmuto’s deal surpassed Brian McCann’s five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Yankees in 2013 as the record for a free-agent catcher. It also eclipsed by $100,000 Joe Mauer’s $23 million mark for average annual salary for a catcher.
A broken thumb wasn’t how Realmuto planned to make his grand return.
“I was so ready to get spring training started, and it’s going to have to wait another extra couple weeks now,” he said. “Obviously I’m disappointed it happened. But if it’s going to happen at any time during the season, this might be the best time for it to.”