Just because Major League Baseball lifted a three-month freeze on transactions last Friday doesn’t mean the Phillies are closer to signing J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension.
“Candidly,” general manager Matt Klentak said Monday, “we’ve been kind of nose to the ground -- intake screenings and getting people here -- so I haven’t touched base with [Realmuto’s camp]. As fas as a timeline, I just don’t know. I need to talk to them.”
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But there’s more to it than merely Klentak’s arranging his schedule to meet with Jeff Berry, Realmuto’s agent. The baseball economy has changed since negotiations began in March, and it’s not clear whether the price points that the sides were discussing are still applicable.
Realmuto, 29, is a two-time All-Star and widely regarded as the best catcher in baseball. Phillies managing partner John Middleton is among his biggest fans, and Klentak has expressed the team’s desire to lock up Realmuto for multiple years, especially after trading top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez to acquire him before last season.
But in losing his arbitration case in February, Realmuto made clear that he wanted to be baseball’s highest-paid catcher, too. Former Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer still holds that distinction after making $23 million per year from 2011 to 2018.
It’s believed that Berry might have been aiming even higher. Word was that Realmuto’s camp viewed the five-year, $130 million extension signed by St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt before last season as a potential target.
But with revenues across the sport taking a hit during the coronavirus-shortened season, it’s unclear whether Realmuto could still command that much money if he reaches free agency this winter.
“The landscape that we left in March is different from the one we return to now,” Klentak said. “We just have to see how that manifests itself in our discussions. We still love the player, we’d still love to have him in red pinstripes for the long haul. But there’s a lot of uncertainty in the game right now on a variety of levels. We just need to play that out.”
Let there be no doubt, Klentak said, that left fielder Andrew McCutchen is ready for training camp.
McCutchen was on a slower progression than his teammates during the original spring training as he continued to recover from major knee surgery last June. But he completed his rehab a few weeks ago in Clearwater and even returned home to Pittsburgh to await the delayed season.
“I think that’s reflective of the fact that he’s feeling good and ready to go,” Klentak said. “That doesn’t mean that we won’t give him an occasional day off or utilitze him in the DH role to give him a little rest, But he’s feeling as good as we could’ve hoped. As far as we can tell, [he] is 100 percent and ready to go.”
The Phillies were unable to replace McCutchen in the leadoff spot after he got injured last May. He also brings veteran leadership to a clubhouse that will need to stick together off the field in order to adhere to coronavirus protocols and stay healthy.
With the designated hitter coming to the National League at least one year before it was anticipated, don’t expect the Phillies to anoint one player to get the majority of at-bats in the role.
“I think more likely we will use that as an opportunity to spread out at-bats to guys who deserve them but may not have a place to play on the field,” Klentak said. “We’ll use it as an opportunity to get some of our regulars some days off the field but keep their bats in the lineup, whether that’s [Bryce] Harper, Realmuto, or [Rhys] Hoskins. I think Jay Bruce is an excellent candidate for that spot. We’re probably going to rotate guys in and out.”
It’s an approach that actually has been adopted by many American League teams in recent years. Rather than building their roster with a set DH (think David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez), many clubs have split the DH spot among multiple players.