The Phillies can afford to sign J.T. Realmuto. They can afford not to sign him, too.
Let’s start the discussion about those two facts by acknowledging that Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball. In his two seasons with the Phillies, he hit .273 with 42 doubles, 36 home runs and 115 RBIs in 192 games. His FanGraphs WAR during that time is a major-league-best 7.4 among catchers. That number is also the best among all Phillies players and tied for 14th with Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman in all of baseball.
Realmuto, who will play next season at age 30, is ranked so high because he is a five-tool player at a position that seldom produces five-tool players. The WAR figure factors in his defense, which is also the best among all catchers in baseball even though the new deeply flawed formula for the Gold Glove award would like you to believe otherwise.
If the Phillies want to keep Realmuto, it is going to cost them dearly and it should. A decade after the Minnesota Twins signed Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million deal, it is not unreasonable for Realmuto to ask for more than that amount of $23 million in annual average salary even in these difficult economic times.
You can argue that Mauer was a better and more accomplished player than Realmuto at the time he signed his contract, but it’s closer than you might think. The one edge for Realmuto in the discussion is power, the most cherished tool in the game these days.
You can also argue that Mauer was three years younger when he signed his mega deal, and that’s indisputable, which is why Realmuto will likely sign for four or five years rather than eight. One more legitimate argument is that Mauer meant more to the Twins than Realmuto does to the Phillies, and that’s true on a number of levels.
The season before Mauer received his huge deal, he won his third batting title by hitting .365 — nobody has hit that high since — and he was the American League MVP for a team that won the American League Central. Add in the fact that Mauer was born and raised in the Twin Cities, and it would have been impossible for the Twins not to sign him.
The Phillies' only major attachments to Realmuto are Sixto Sanchez and Jorge Alfaro, two of the players former general manager Matt Klentak surrendered to the Miami Marlins to get him. If Realmuto departs via free agency and either one of those players becomes a superstar, it will be the only reason Klentak is never forgotten in Philadelphia.
That said, the Phillies can afford to sign Realmuto. We know that times are tough and that baseball has not been immune to the financial crisis caused by COVID-19. Some of the team’s best employees have felt the pinch in recent weeks, and like most clubs, the Phillies have played a conservative financial hand in their early offseason moves.
They did make an $18.9 million qualifying offer to Realmuto, which will get them draft-pick compensation if he signs elsewhere, but they declined to make that offer to shortstop Didi Gregorius because they did not want to give him a $5.9 million raise even for one season. Realmuto, as arguably the best available free agent, is sure to turn down the qualifying offer, and it does seem likely that his free-agency process will drag out at least into January and possibly even February.
The one team that could accelerate the issue is the New York Mets, who are eager to make a big splash under new owner Steve Cohen. There have been rumblings that Realmuto is not enamored with the idea of playing in New York. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a great financial negotiating tool.
You want me that bad, pay me my initial asking price right now and I’ll love New York.
The Phillies were obviously unwilling to do that.
“We tried to sign him in 2019, we tried to sign him in 2020, we tried to engage him in a conversation after the [Mookie] Betts extension [with the Dodgers], and we just weren’t able to find anything approaching common ground,” Phillies president Andy MacPhail said last week.
With $39 million coming off the payroll from the likely departures of Gregorius ($14 million) and Jake Arrieta ($25 million), the Phillies will have enough payroll room to give Realmuto a deal with an average annual value of $25 million to $27 million and still stay under the $210 million tax threshold for 2021.
The big question is whether owners John Middleton and the Buck cousins — Pete and Jim — feel as though they need to trim the payroll from the roughly $207 million it would have been in 2020 if the season had not been reduced to 60 games. Most teams appear to feel that payroll reductions are a must after a season without fans and potential COVID-19 limitations looming again in 2021.
Public and player sympathy always has been difficult to come by for the owners because they are not required by law to disclose their finances. Only Middleton, the Bucks and their financial advisers know what they can and cannot afford.
At the moment, the public sentiment is that the Phillies cannot afford to lose Realmuto’s talent. That is not entirely true. They can afford to lose him if they replace his bat in the lineup and his immense defensive skills. It will take more than one player to do that, but this year’s free-agent market could yield the Phillies two solid players for less than the cost of Realmuto.
Let’s address the defensive part first. James McCann was an All-Star catcher two years ago for the Chicago White Sox, who then signed Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million deal before last season. Now, McCann is a free agent who is quite capable of being the Phillies' primary catcher. Over the last two seasons, he has hit .276 with 25 homers and 75 RBIs in 149 games, so he’s certainly not an offensive slouch and he’s considered among the best defensive catchers in the game.
McCann is only nine months older than Realmuto, and he can probably be had on a two- or three-year deal at around $10 million per season. Get him and the Phillies can focus other payroll on upgrading the outfield, rebuilding the bullpen, and possibly even adding a starting pitcher.
Houston center fielder George Springer is going to be the premier outfielder in this free-agent class, but he will likely get a similar deal to or perhaps an even better deal than Realmuto. Go down a class and Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. might fill the need in center field at $10 million per year over three years.
If the Phillies want to shop for some outfielders who could give them offense without filling their need for a center fielder, they could pursue Houston’s Michael Brantley or Atlanta’s Marcell Ozuna, but both will have heavy price tags.