For five years, through defensive struggles and injuries and lapses in concentration, Gary Sanchez has been at the core of New York Yankees teams with championship aspirations. But the slugging catcher recently got benched for all but two of seven playoff games.
Want to bet J.T. Realmuto noticed?
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Realmuto will be a free agent in two weeks, and his objective is simple: to rake in the highest annual salary ever for a catcher and raise the bar for future stars at the position, just as Joe Mauer did a decade ago when he signed a $23-million-per-year contract extension with the Minnesota Twins.
In an ordinary year, under normal market conditions, Realmuto would succeed. Since 2016, including the last two years with the Phillies, he leads catchers in plate appearances (2,253), hits (576), doubles (125), triples (9), and stolen bases (34), and ranks second in RBIs (275) and Wins Above Replacement (18.8 by Fangraphs' calculation) and third in home runs (78). He has thrown out more runners (122) than any other catcher. And he won’t turn 30 until March.
But this isn’t an ordinary year. Revenues are down across baseball after 60 games in spectator-free ballparks, and absent a COVID-19 vaccine, nobody knows how next year will look either. Teams are laying off employees. Offseason spending is sure to be curbed, too.
“Any team that drew 2.1 million fans [in 2019] that thinks they’re going to draw 2.1 million even if they play a full 2021 season, that just doesn’t feel realistic,” Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport, said over the summer. “I would be surprised, very surprised, to see a free-agent market that held up anywhere near what the previous markets were.”
Even in a pandemic, though, a player’s value is determined by demand. Although the aging curve for catchers tends to be steep, Realmuto also sits atop the market, with outfielder George Springer and pitcher Trevor Bauer. Most industry observers believe they won’t feel the pinch as much as the free-agent middle class, and it wouldn’t hurt Realmuto if the big-spending Yankees are shopping for a catcher.
“All he needs is two or three [teams],” former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips said recently. “And I think you’re going to have at least three or four willing participants that try to bring him in.”
The Phillies can still re-sign Realmuto, but they will face competition. And before this uncertain market opens, it’s helpful to consider the teams — in no particular order, and not including the St. Louis Cardinals, who face a decision about bringing back franchise cornerstone Yadier Molina — that might be Realmuto’s strongest suitors.
Jot down this name: Steve Cohen. Now commit it to memory. Because he might pose the greatest threat to the Phillies' keeping Realmuto.
Cohen, 64, is a lifelong Mets fan. He’s also reportedly worth $14 billion. If he gets approval to buy the Mets, he will be the richest owner in baseball, with the means and the motivation to make a big splash in New York.
“There’s no question the Mets would be in on [Realmuto], especially if they get new ownership,” said Phillips, a SiriusXM MLB Network Radio host. “The idea of getting the best player at a position and taking him away from somebody in your division, it’s a double win.”
Realmuto would represent an offensive and defensive upgrade over Mets catcher Wilson Ramos, also a free agent. And Realmuto is a .300 hitter with an .806 OPS in 86 games against the Mets, including .321 and .860 marks in 40 games at Citi Field.
The Mets tried trading for Realmuto two years ago but balked at the Miami Marlins' asking price. Now that it costs only Cohen’s money, they could top $23 million per year.
Two years after Bryce Harper left Washington for $330 million in Philadelphia, could the Nationals buy his favorite player away from the Phillies?
Absolutely, because this is deeper than irony. Like the Mets, the Nationals looked into acquiring Realmuto in the 2018-19 offseason. They have as much as $35 million rolling off their luxury-tax payroll with expiring contracts or options that might be declined. And they will need a catcher, as Kurt Suzuki heads to free agency.
“There’s going to be two teams or three teams in the NL East who are going to go after [Realmuto],” Harper said last month. “And if that happens, I mean, that’s going to be tough for us to swallow.”
In addition to being rising challengers in divisions with big-market powerhouses, the Blue Jays and Padres have young catchers — Danny Jansen and Francisco Mejia, respectively — who regressed this season. Toronto ranked 23rd in catcher OPS (.628); San Diego was 28th (.568).
Could Realmuto take either team from wild card to pennant winner?
Perhaps, though the Jays' need is greater, especially after the Padres picked up catcher Austin Nola, Aaron’s big brother, in a midseason trade. Phillips suggested "it’s going to be a win-now team that’s going to want [Realmuto],” which would seemingly eliminate the rebuilding Texas Rangers, the closest team to his hometown in Oklahoma.
"A team like the Blue Jays,” Phillips said, "if they think a guy like Realmuto could put them over the top with their pitching, too, they’re going to be in on it.”
Sanchez’s slide — .147 average, .618 OPS, 64 strikeouts in 178 plate appearances — will be a “discussion point” for the Yankees, as general manager Brian Cashman told reporters recently. But Cashman also didn’t guarantee that Sanchez, two years shy of free agency, will be the starting catcher in 2021.
The Yankees could keep Sanchez and hope for a rebound. Or maybe they’ll trade him, albeit at the nadir of his value, for pitching. The latter option could put them in the mix for Realmuto, which might help his agent, Jeff Berry, drive up the price.
But the Yankees might well follow the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros in prioritizing defense at catcher. After all, despite getting so little from Sanchez, they still led the league in runs (315) and OPS (.789).
Regardless of managing partner John Middleton’s application of hindsight, the Phillies' baseball-ops honchos understood they might have Realmuto for only two seasons — at manageable salaries ($5.9 million and $10 million), to boot — when they traded for him, a premise that informed the Marlins' three-player return, including prized pitcher Sixto Sanchez.
But that doesn’t mean they planned to bid him farewell after two years, either.
Luxury-tax concerns caused the Phillies to delay extension talks with Berry until determining Realmuto’s 2020 salary through arbitration in February. The onset of the pandemic in March halted negotiations with the sides far apart. But it was early in the process, leaving one source to speculate that a deal would’ve been reached if not for COVID-19.
In a pandemic world, the Phillies are betting on Realmuto’s settling for less than he seeks. All along, they seemed to realize it would take at least $23 million per year. Maybe they will still go that far, and maybe it will be enough.
But there’s also a point at which the Phillies will pivot to a more affordable alternative. Keep an eye on James McCann, whose numbers over the last two years with the Chicago White Sox (.276/.334/.474, 25 homers, 114 OPS+) are comparable to Realmuto’s (.273/.333/.492, 36 homers, 112 OPS+).