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J.T. Realmuto declines Phillies’ qualifying offer, so Mets could step up to the plate

New Mets owner Steve Cohen seems ready to spend this winter on free agents like Realmuto while other teams count their losses from a season played without fans.

JT Realmuto is a valuable player, and the bidding is beginning.
JT Realmuto is a valuable player, and the bidding is beginning.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

J.T. Realmuto turned down a one-year qualifying offer Wednesday from the Phillies, officially putting baseball’s premier catcher on the open market just one day after new Mets owner Steve Cohen expressed a willingness to add payroll and a desire to win a title within the next five years.

If Realmuto signs elsewhere, the Phillies will receive draft-pick compensation since the catcher declined their $18.9 million qualifying offer. Realmuto is seeking to earn more than $23 million a year, the record for a catcher set by Joe Mauer.

Phillies managing partner John Middleton said last month that signing Realmuto was “absolutely” a priority, but the team hardly engaged Realmuto this summer before he reached free agency. Team president Andy MacPhail said he was optimistic that the Phillies could re-sign Realmuto because “he enjoyed his time here, and obviously we want him back.”

But that optimism took a hit on Tuesday after the Phillies listened to the new owner of the rival Mets, who just so happen to be in need of a catcher.

Cohen, a venture capitalist with an estimated net worth of $14 billion, said he would not spend like a “drunken sailor” this winter but is looking to take advantage of an offseason that is expected to feature many teams — including the Phillies — that are watching their spending.

“This is a major-market team,” Cohen said of the Mets. “And it should have a budget commensurate with that.”

Realmuto was one of six free agents — Astros outfielder George Springer, Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu, Reds righthander Trevor Bauer, Mets righthander Marcus Stroman, and Giants righthander Kevin Gausman — to receive qualifying offers earlier this month, and only Gausman and Stroman accepted their offers.

The free-agent market is expected to move even slower than normal this winter as teams scale back after playing a 60-game season without fans. Middleton said he expected to lose $100 million this season, and the team is planning to lay off full-time employees later this month.

As a way to save money, the Phillies reassigned general manager Matt Klentak instead of firing him and replaced him on an interim basis with his top assistant. A search for a permanent replacement has yet to truly begin, and the Phillies, unlike in previous winters, do not seem like a team gearing up to spend on free agents.

Finances, MacPhail said, “are different” because of the pandemic.

“Something like this caught us in a bad spot,” MacPhail said. “We had just expanded the operation. We had expanded the payroll. We had been active in signing free agents like [Zack] Wheeler and [Bryce] Harper. We didn’t anticipate a global pandemic.”

Other teams' financial situations could create an advantage for Cohen, assuming he’s willing to spend the way he hinted on Tuesday while other teams count their losses. There are several free agents – such as Realmuto, Springer, and Bauer – who are premier talents but will likely be available at prices below the market value of a typical offseason.

Cohen said he’s not “trying to make money” with the Mets, and he would be disappointed if he didn’t win a championship in the next three to five years.

“Today, given what we want to achieve, it’s not about how much less we can get somebody for. It’s more about getting that somebody,” said Mets president Sandy Alderson, who was brought back to the team by Cohen. “Now, I don’t want to create the impression that we’re going to go out and sign a bunch of players. But we now can emphasize the acquisition rather than the cost.”

In two seasons with the Phillies, Realmuto led all catchers in WAR (7.4) and posted a .825 OPS with 36 homers. He won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019 and tied for the the major-league lead in homers among catchers in 2020 despite missing 11 games in September with a sore hip.

If they lose Realmuto, the Phillies could pivot to free-agent catcher James McCann, who revitalized his career the last two seasons with the White Sox. McCann, 30, hit .276 with a .808 OPS over two years in Chicago after starting his career by hitting .240 with a .653 OPS in five years with the Tigers. The Phillies will be hard-pressed to replace Realmuto’s production, but McCann would be the next-best option, and his price should be cheaper.

But if Realmuto moves to the Mets, the Phillies will have to play 35% of next season’s schedule against the team that signed the catcher and the club to which they traded top-pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez (Marlins) in order to rent Realmuto for two seasons. It’s shaping up to be a long winter for the Phillies, and it could be even colder if Cohen meets Realmuto’s price.