In time, perhaps even before this season starts, the Phillies and J.T. Realmuto might be able to hammer out a multiyear contract extension, an outcome that is thought to be desirable to both parties.
For now, though, they can’t agree on a 2020 salary for the All-Star catcher.
The Phillies avoided arbitration with four of their six eligible players, reaching one-year agreements with right-handers Vince Velasquez ($3.6 million) and Zach Eflin ($2.625 million), and lefty relievers Jose Alvarez ($2.95 million) and Adam Morgan ($1.575 million). But they exchanged salary figures with Realmuto and closer Hector Neris and could be headed to hearings with both players next month.
Realmuto is seeking $12.4 million, more than double his $5.9 million salary last year; the Phillies filed at $10 million, which would still be an arbitration record for a catcher. Neris asked for $5.2 million; the Phillies submitted a $4.25-million offer. He made $1.8 million last season.
Most teams take a “file and trial” approach to arbitration, meaning they cease negotiating after the exchange of figures and agree to proceed to a hearing in which a three-judge panel determines a player’s salary by choosing either the player’s request or the team’s offer.
But it’s likely the Phillies will keep talking, at least with Realmuto’s agent, as they did last year with Aaron Nola. The sides were bound for arbitration but reached an 11th-hour agreement on a four-year, $45 million deal that was signed the day of the hearing.
Regardless of whether the Phillies take Realmuto to the arbitration table, history shows that going through the process won’t impede their chances of signing him to a long-term deal. Ryan Howard won his arbitration hearing against the Phillies before the 2008 season and signed a three-year, $54 million extension in 2009.
Besides, Realmuto’s hearing would be about how high the bar should be set for future catchers who go through arbitration. New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, for instance, agreed to a $5 million salary Friday, avoiding arbitration in his first year of eligibility. Realmuto’s salary could have an impact on how much money Sanchez makes next year and the year after.
But the Phillies’ opinion of Realmuto’s talents and his importance to the team isn’t in question.
“We love J.T.,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said early in the offseason. “Every week it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time: This guy is the real deal. He can do everything.
“At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”
Realmuto’s case is complex because of the lack of 28-year-old, two-time All-Star catchers who reached a third year of arbitration eligibility before signing an extension.
MLB Trade Rumors pegged his salary at $10.3 million based on the strength of his 2019 season. He won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, led all catchers in hits (148), RBIs (83), and slugging percentage (.493), and became the first Phillies catcher since Mike Lieberthal in 1999 to hit at least 25 homers.
There’s slightly more precedent for an extension. Realmuto is older than Joe Mauer and Buster Posey when they signed $184 million and $167 million extensions, respectively. And they were also former MVPs. But he compares favorably to St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who signed a five-year, $75 million extension at age 29 before the 2012 season.
Allowing for eight years of inflation, Realmuto seems likely to want something in the neighborhood of five years and $100 million.
“That’s a conversation we’ll definitely have this offseason,” Realmuto said after the season ended. “I’m certainly not opposed to staying here. I love playing here in Philadelphia. I love the crowd. I love the fans. I love my team. So we’ll see how that goes in the offseason.”
One thing seems clear: The Phillies will negotiate a 2020 salary for Realmuto that isn’t included in a long-term deal in order to preserve what little flexibility they have left beneath the luxury-tax threshold.
The Phillies are set to enter this season with a franchise-record payroll of approximately $202 million, as calculated for luxury tax purposes. They would be taxed 20% for every dollar spent above $208 million. Managing partner John Middleton has stated a willingness to pay the tax, but only if the team has a chance to win the division.