As everyone expected all along, the New York Mets – led by their new owner, the wealthiest man in baseball – have agreed on a four-year contract with a free-agent catcher.
It just isn’t J.T. Realmuto.
On its face, the news Saturday that the Mets landed James McCann was a ray of light for the Phillies in their mostly dim offseason. McCann is a nice player with upside that exceeds back-to-back solid seasons for the Chicago White Sox. But he isn’t Realmuto, the game’s best all-around catcher – and nine months younger than McCann, to boot.
Knowing Realmuto won’t be playing his age-30 season and beyond in New York must be a relief to Phillies managing partner John Middleton. And knowing Realmuto isn’t wanted by the Mets must be a bummer to agent Jeff Berry, whose job would be a little easier if he could use Steve Cohen’s riches to ratchet up the bidding.
But, before anybody assumes that the Phillies are now leading the Realmuto chase, or that their catching situation is any more stable, know this: It’s still as tricky as ever, even after the Phils brought in two-time World Series-winning wheeler-dealer Dave Dombrowski to run baseball operations.
Middleton signaled through the elimination of 80 jobs last month that the Phillies, like many teams, will spend less on player payroll in 2021. How much less is not known. But even Dombrowski, who in his first offseason with the Boston Red Sox talked owner John Henry into forking over $217 million for free-agent pitcher David Price, said Friday that his understanding is that the budget will be reduced from this year, when the Phillies went to within $350,000 of the $208 million luxury-tax threshold, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
McCann’s contract with the Mets is reportedly worth about $10 million per year. Realmuto wants significantly more, upwards of $25 million annually for perhaps six or seven years, quite the plunge to take given the typical aging curve for catchers and his workload behind the plate since 2016 (4,590 innings, second to Yadier Molina’s 4,638⅓).
The Phillies could probably re-sign Realmuto at his price, even though they already have about $141 million in commitments against the luxury tax for 2021. If they did, though, would they have room in the budget to adequately overhaul the worst bullpen in baseball?
“I don’t know that,” Dombrowski said. “I do know everybody in the organization loves J.T. That’s anybody I’ve talked to. That feeling is mutual from John on down through the rest of the staff. I think there’s a unanimous feeling they’d like to bring him back. Now, those things are never easy. There is some flexibility to make moves there, but can you get something like that done? I’m really not sure.”
Indeed, Middleton said in October that re-signing Realmuto is a priority. He’s also keenly aware of public sentiment and must anticipate the anger within an already frustrated fan base – to say nothing of chief “Sign J.T.” lobbyist Bryce Harper – if the popular catcher walks away.
But in not extending Realmuto’s contract during the season, the Phillies wagered that free-agent opportunities in a pandemic wouldn’t align with his expectations. And waiting out the formation of a market that might include neither New York team (the Yankees tendered a contract to catcher Gary Sanchez and reportedly are focused on re-signing infielder DJ LeMahieu) might still be the Phillies’ best play.
The same could reasonably be said for Realmuto. McCann was the second-best free-agent catcher. If a few from the next tier – Mike Zunino, Tyler Flowers, Curt Casali, Kurt Suzuki, Robinson Chirinos, and 38-year-old Molina – begin flying off the board, will the Phillies get antsy and let Realmuto name his price?
It all sets up a risky game of chicken that could result in the Phillies’ being stuck with a 2021 catching tandem of Andrew Knapp and 21-year-old Rafael Marchan, or Realmuto’s running out of teams motivated to give him the contract he wants.
The latter doesn’t seem likely. This probably isn’t two years ago, when catcher Yasmani Grandal declined a $17.9 million qualifying offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers, watched his market fall apart, and settled in mid-January for a one-year, $16 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Even with the Mets out of the mix for Realmuto, the St. Louis Cardinals could come calling if they don’t re-sign Molina, a franchise fixture for 17 years. The Toronto Blue Jays have deep pockets and could choose to upgrade from young catcher Danny Jansen.
The Washington Nationals might have the most motivation to add Realmuto. Like the Mets, they were interested in trading for him two years ago before the Marlins dealt him to the Phillies. They have a need at catcher, a spot in the middle of the order for a right-handed hitter, and a history of being active in free agency under general manager Mike Rizzo.
And would there be a better way to irritate Harper two years after he left Washington for $330 million than by prying away his favorite player from the Phillies?
“There’s going to be two teams or three teams in the NL East who are going to go after [Realmuto],” Harper said at the end of the season. “And if that happens, I mean, that’s going to be tough for us to swallow.”
There’s now one fewer NL East team nibbling at Realmuto. But that doesn’t make the Phillies’ road to a reunion any less complicated.