So, where were we?
Baseball’s hot stove tends to simmer between Christmas and New Year’s, and save for the freewheeling, big-dealing San Diego Padres, this holiday season followed the typical pattern.
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But the free-agent market moved like molasses before the break, leaving roughly 250 free agents, including J.T. Realmuto, looking for work. Teams aren’t rushing to sign them, either. Not with COVID-19 still raging, uncertainty over when the vaccines will be widely accessible, and Major League Baseball and the players union bracing for another rumble over money that could push back opening day.
It’s going to be an eventful January.
Teams nevertheless have been told to plan for an on-time spring training. The Phillies have six weeks, then, to fill out the roster. And considering they have made one trade, two waiver claims, and a Rule 5 pick in 99 days since their season ended, there’s a lot for new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and the reconfigured front office to do. Such as:
All along, the Phillies knew the cost to sign Realmuto beyond 2020 may eclipse Joe Mauer’s catcher-record $23 million annual salary. And all along, Realmuto’s camp believed his compensation should align with all comparable players, not only catchers.
It’s the reason Realmuto went to an arbitration hearing last February even though the Phillies’ $10 million offer was a record for arbitration-eligible catchers. It also explains why extension talks didn’t get far. If the Phillies were willing to top Mauer’s mark, Realmuto and agent Jeff Berry were eyeing something closer to St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt’s $26 million-per-year extension, a bar they wouldn’t reach while the Phillies were the lone bidder — in a pandemic, no less.
The question now, in a free-agent market with few profligate spenders, is whether Realmuto’s price will be met, especially with the New York Mets no longer shopping for a catcher. The answer might not be revealed for a while.
None of the other marquee free agents – center fielder George Springer, pitcher Trevor Bauer, and infielder DJ LeMahieu – has signed. The Phillies also didn’t hire Dombrowski until Dec. 11, and he didn’t hear from Berry until Dec. 21. Although an offer for Realmuto will come from the ownership level, Dombrowski will run the negotiations.
Manager Joe Girardi said last month that he regards backup Andrew Knapp as the only major-league catcher presently on the roster. The free-agent alternatives pale in comparison to Realmuto, and the Phillies lack the prospect capital to trade for the Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras.
But while it seems the Phillies need Realmuto more than he needs them, the gap might be narrowing.
The Washington Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays have varying levels of interest in Realmuto. The Houston Astros could bring him closer to his Oklahoma home. And don’t count out the Los Angeles Dodgers, although 25-year-old catcher Will Smith looks like a future All-Star.
But the Phillies might still represent Realmuto’s best fit. He likes the area and his teammates. Managing partner John Middleton (not to mention Bryce Harper) wants him back. And if the market doesn’t develop as Realmuto and Berry anticipated, the price might come down, too.
Five years ago, with the Boston Red Sox desperate for an ace, Dombrowski talked owner John Henry into making the highest bid for free-agent pitcher David Price.
Could he have the same sway over Middleton in the Realmuto derby?
Girardi’s takeaway after the Phillies’ wild-card chances were vaporized on the final day of the season: “We won 28 games. I think we could have just as easily won 38 games.”
Sure, if they had a league-average bullpen rather than one that posted a 7.06 ERA and blew more games (14) than it saved (11).
A case could be made, then, that bringing back Realmuto and building a halfway respectable bullpen would give the Phillies a decent shot in 2021.
The latter is never easy, as Dombrowski could attest from most of his 14-year tenure in Detroit. He has long been attracted to high velocity but also realizes the value of depth. And there’s no shortage of free-agent relievers from which he can choose.
“I think the philosophy for many years was, if you had a closer and a setup guy, you could build the rest of your bullpen,” Dombrowski said last month. “I’ve really changed [to thinking] that depth is important.”
Indeed, it will take more than throwing money at a combination of free-agent closer types Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Archie Bradley, Shane Greene, Alex Colome, Trevor Rosenthal, and Mark Melancon. The Phillies also must unearth the undervalued talent that they have not often found in the last few years.
That pursuit led them to a trade last week for lefty Jose Alvarado, whose wipeout sinker averaged 97.7 mph and helped achieve a 28.5% strikeout rate for Tampa Bay in 2018-19. He had shoulder problems last season, but if the Phillies can recapture his pre-injury form, they might have a late-inning option.
Dombrowski must find as many as possible wherever he can.
Given that the Phillies began the offseason by claiming to have lost $145 million in revenue in 2020 and reducing 18% of their workforce, it follows that Dombrowski expects the player payroll to be lower than last year’s estimate of $207.6 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Unsaid, though, is the extent of the rollback.
If the Phillies re-sign Realmuto, they will have less flexibility to do other things. If not, they could pivot to bringing back shortstop Didi Gregorius. He wants a multiyear deal, though, and the Phillies likely prefer a short-term shortstop fix.
Jean Segura could slide back to the position but fits better at second base. If Andrelton Simmons or Freddy Galvis is open to a one-year contract, either would improve the defense at shortstop while serving as a bridge to top prospect Bryson Stott in 2022 or next winter’s shortstop-loaded free-agent class (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Javier Baez, and Corey Seager).
Dombrowski namechecked Adam Haseley in a news conference last month, a sign that he might get another chance to win the job in center field. The Phillies nevertheless will check in on free agents such as Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Pillar, both of whom would represent defensive upgrades.