In January, before most people knew the first thing about COVID-19, the average cost of gasoline in Philadelphia was $2.66 per gallon. Last month, at the peak of quarantine, it was $2.09.
It's reasonable to expect gas prices to rise again. What would you say, though, if your local Zoom 'n Go wanted to charge January prices to fill your tank today?
Just the same, the lifting Friday of Major League Baseball's three-month freeze on transactions will surely get the Phillies talking again about a contract extension for star catcher J.T. Realmuto. But it won't necessarily lead to a deal. Not without a likely adjustment from the salary numbers that were being thrown around in March, before the coronavirus shut down the sport and altered the economic landscape.
"Anyone thinking that any team that drew 2.1 million fans last year is going to be drawing 2.1 million even if they play a full 2021 season, that just doesn't feel realistic," said Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU's Tisch Institute for Global Sport. "So, I would be surprised -- very surprised -- to see a free-agent market that held up anywhere near what the previous markets were."
Realmuto, 29, is eligible for free agency after the season. He’s regarded by many -- including Phillies managing partner John Middleton -- as the best catcher in baseball and wants to be paid like it, too. It’s also a priority for the Phillies to re-sign him for four or five years, especially after giving up top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez to acquire him in a trade before last season.
It's believed that Realmuto's agent, Jeff Berry, set his sights on former Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer's $23 million average annual salary from 2011 to 2018, the most any catcher has ever made.
Word is, though, that Realmuto’s camp had another number in mind: $26 million, the average annual value of the five-year contract extension signed last year by St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who is two years older than Realmuto and doesn’t play a premier position.
But who knows if those numbers are relevant any longer?
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said that teams will lose an average of 40% of their expected revenues this year without fans in attendance. That’s on top of playing only 37% of the schedule, coronavirus-permitting. In a letter to employees last month, Middleton said the Phillies will lose “substantially more than $100 million this year.”
Regardless of whether you believe any of that -- and the Players Association has asked that the owners document their claims of financial hardship -- it will have an undeniable effect on players' salaries, at least in the short term. Whatever offers Realmuto -- or Mookie Betts, or Trevor Bauer, or anyone else in the free-agent class of 2020-21 -- thought they would reel in, they likely will find the market to be less fruitful than expected.
Considering the Phillies are bidding only against themselves at the moment, are they willing to pay Realmuto’s pre-coronavirus price before they know what the open market will bear? Or will they allow him to reach free agency, extend him a qualifying offer, and make a strong bid after assessing post-2020 market conditions?
"It'll be depressed in part because certain teams are going to have a cash squeeze," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College. "Teams like the Mets and the Rays and some other teams, because of the extent of how leveraged they are to begin with, and because of revenue shortages this year, they're going to be less willing to take risks, particularly long-term risks, on individual players.
“But even more, the market’s going to be depressed because of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next year. Nobody knows what the heck is going to happen. Are we going to have a vaccine before the 2021 season? Even if we do have a vaccine, there’s been profound damage to the economy and to the labor market, so people are not going to have the income to spend on leisure activities that they had in the past. I think it’ll be a terrible time to be a free agent.”
Perhaps, then, Realmuto will be more motivated to sign an extension. By all accounts, he enjoyed his first season in Philadelphia. He became a respected team leader, has a strong bond with Bryce Harper, and was an instant favorite of new manager Joe Girardi.
But Realmuto is also closer now to free agency. And as a top-tier free agent, he figures to be in high demand and for good money, even if it’s not quite as good as he anticipated.
Gas prices always bounce back, you know.