Bryce Harper said Sunday afternoon that he is not an owner, so he does not have an opinion to share on the job status of Phillies general manager Matt Klentak.
But Harper does have an opinion on how an owner should spend their money.
“J.T. Realmuto needs to be our catcher next year. Plain and simple,” Harper said. “He’s the best catcher in baseball. He’s the best hitting catcher in baseball. Our guys love to throw to him if that’s Zack Wheeler, if that’s Aaron Nola, if that’s anybody. Anybody that’s the best at their position – hitting and fielding – needs to be signed and that is J.T. Realmuto.”
Harper has never been shy about his feelings about re-signing Realmuto. He said last season that Realmuto was his favorite player, he wore a Realmuto t-shirt for the first days of summer camp, and celebrated his friend’s home runs this season by acting as if he was signing a check. It was no secret that Harper wanted the Phillies to sign Realmuto a long-term contract.
But his statement after Sunday’s season finale was his most emphatic yet.
“I don’t think that should even be a question,” Harper said after the Phillies missed the postseason for the ninth-straight season.
Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola shares Harper’s opinion.
“J.T. is definitely big for us. He’s one of the best catchers in the major leagues,” Nola said. “For a pitching staff to have the same catcher for multiple years it’s important. It’s tough to change a different catcher every single year or every other year, to have the same guy you form a relationship with him, he forms a relationship with all the starting staff, all the relievers. The chemistry is there. But we’ll see what happens. I don’t make this decision, really. But I know we all want him around.”
The free-agent market could move slower this winter following a year without fans and a looming labor strife. But Realmuto and his agent are confident that there will still be a normal market for the top free agents. The Phillies should be motivated to retain him, as they parted with Sixto Sanchez before last season to acquire Realmuto.
Sanchez reached the majors this season with Miami and looks like a top-of-the-rotation arm. It was a win-now trade as the Phillies sacrificed their top prospect for an established major-league star. The Marlins, who were in a rebuild when they moved Realmuto to the Phillies, will play a postseason game on Wednesday.
If Realmuto walks, then moving Sanchez for just two seasons of Realmuto will be a tough trade to live with. If that’s not enough motivation, there may be some division rivals looking this winter to add Realmuto.
“There’s going to be two teams or three teams in the NL East who are going to go after that guy,” Harper said. “And if that happens, I mean, that’s going to be tough to swallow for us.”
The Mets need a catcher and they have money to spend after billionaire hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen bought the team this month. The New York Post pasted Realmuto onto its back page last week with the headline “Catch Made in Heaven.” The Washington Post wrote this week that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has “coveted him for years.”
The Phillies could have signed Realmuto after they traded for him, but they decided to wait. They could have signed him this season, but they decided to wait. And now a bidding war could be brewing. The Phillies already lost Sanchez to a division rival. Losing Realmuto, too, would be quite a blow.
He finished the season with a .840 OPS after winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. He injured his hip earlier this month, but returned for the final week of the season despite not being 100% healthy. He is one of the team’s most respected players and is baseball’s premier catcher. He’ll try to be paid like it this winter.
Joe Mauer’s $184 million deal ($23 million average annual value) in 2010 with Minnesota is the record for catchers. Realmuto will try to clear it. The Phillies defeated Realmuto before the season in salary arbitration as their figure was $2.4 million less than what Realmuto was seeking. They began to outline a long-term deal before the league was shut down by the pandemic. Talks never regained steam.
The Phillies decided to wait until the offseason so they could gauge what a free-agent market would look like after a season without fans. They’ll likely make a decision this week on the status of Klentak. And if the general manager – Klentak or someone new – is unsure of what to do about Realmuto, they can always ask Harper.