During the last four months, J.T. Realmuto has seen a global pandemic cancel spring training and a 162-game schedule shrink to just 60 games. He narrowly avoided a coronavirus outbreak at the Phillies’ Clearwater, Fla. facility, forcing him to self-quarantine in South Jersey and pass a series of tests as a precaution before reporting to Citizens Bank Park for summer camp.
For Realmuto, the last four months have been eventful – except when it comes to his contract situation.
On March 5, a week before the pandemic thwarted spring training, Realmuto said there was “no update” on the long-term deal he was seeking before his final season heading into free agency. Four months later, Realmuto’s status remains the same.
“We haven’t really gone anywhere since then,” Realmuto said after Thursday’s practice at the ballpark.
The Phillies and Realmuto were not allowed to negotiate for three months, while baseball was shut down by the pandemic. Talks were permitted to resume on June 26, when MLB’s roster freeze was lifted, yet negotiations have failed to heat up.
General manager Matt Klentak said at the start of summer camp “that the landscape we left in March is going to be different than the one we return to now, and we just have to see how that manifests itself in our discussions.”
It does not sound as though the Phillies are in a rush to hammer out a deal with Realmuto 17 months after sacrificing their best prospect to acquire him
The Phillies could choose to wait until the offseason and see how the free-agent market is affected by revenues lost around the majors due to the pandemic. Perhaps they will then be able to sign Realmuto to a deal worth less than what he would have earned in March.
Realmuto, just like in the arbitration case he lost to the Phillies in February, is likely trying to set a precedent for catchers by chasing history. He could be seeking a contract that eclipses Joe Mauer’s $23 million-per-year deal, which was signed in 2010 and remains the highest average annual value for a catcher.
But those numbers might be harder to reach this winter. The Phillies seem willing to find out.
“It definitely concerns me,” Realmuto said about how the market could be affected by the pandemic. “Not necessarily for myself, but it does concern me for the free-agency class as a whole. I mentioned a few months back that the top guys usually find a way to get their dollars. Teams are going to want them. Maybe it’s not 20 teams that are in on you; now there’ll be five to 10. I just think that a lot of teams will be able to look at this as a time to take advantage and actually go for it instead of backing off. As half the league will probably be trying to cut revenue and save some money and the other ones will look at it as an advantage to maybe go forward and press forward. I think that it could affect free agency as a whole, but for myself, I’m not really too worried about it.”
Realmuto started his videoconference with reporters by asking whether “we can keep the questions away from the contract situation.” The catcher, speaking to reporters for the first time since March, did not want to talk about his negotiations – partly because not much has changed since then.
If Realmuto wants to stay mum, Bryce Harper seems happy to talk for him. Harper wore a Realmuto shirt during the first days of camp, seeming to send a message to the front office on Realmuto’s behalf despite saying he was just wearing the shirt because it was comfortable.
On Wednesday, Harper shouted “sign him” after Realmuto homered in an intrasquad game. Realmuto already has an agent, but maybe he’s looking for a spokesman.
“I hope he owns a team one day, honestly. I might be able to catch until I’m 60 if he owns a team,” Realmuto said. “I know it’s all in good fun. Obviously I appreciate the support from him, and the respect is mutual there. Yeah, he has a little fun with it, so I don’t mind it too much.”
Realmuto said the slow pace of negotiations has not frustrated him. He said he loves the Phillies, who he said have been great to his family since he arrived. From top to bottom, “they’re just good people, and they care about baseball, and that’s really important to me.”
Despite the lack of a deal, there does not appear to be a rift between the Phillies and Realmuto. And Joe Girardi supports that.
“The one thing that I don’t have the luxury of having is what J.T. was like last year and the year before. I was not around J.T. But everything that I’ve seen from J.T. from Day 1 of spring training, he’s the same person every day. Happy to be here” the Phillies manager said. “Wants to just go out and play and help the team win. When he came back from his arbitration case, his personality hadn’t changed. He had a smile on his face when he walked through the clubhouse door. So, I haven’t seen anything different this year. But I don’t have anything to compare it to. But he’s a pretty happy-go-lucky, love-to-play, want-to-be-on-the-field kind of guy. I would hate to see what he was like if this was bothering him. Goodness gracious, he’d have the biggest smile we’d ever see on an everyday basis.”
Realmuto was on track last season to play in 94% of the team’s games before a minor knee injury ended his season after the Phillies were eliminated from postseason contention. There’s no reason, he can’t start every game this season, he said, estimating he could catch between 50 or 55 games while playing the rest of the 60 games at first base or as the designated hitter.
Girardi, like Gabe Kapler did last season, will find it a challenge to give Realmuto a night off. The catcher will try to wedge his way into the lineup whenever the manager tries to give him a rest.
It should be an eventful season as the Phillies play 60 games in 66 days in a postseason sprint that could be the final chapter of Realmuto’s time in Philadelphia. But for Realmuto, the next three months could be even more eventful, if negotiations resume. For now, he’d rather not talk about it.
“I understand the business of baseball,” Realmuto said. “Like I said, I’m here to play baseball and focus on this team winning and getting to the playoffs.”