Steve Phillips did the research, so he understood the risk.
But he never considered it much of a choice.
In 1998, after his second season as general manager of the New York Mets, Phillips negotiated a seven-year, $91 million contract that kept Mike Piazza in the Big Apple and made him the highest-paid player in baseball.
Never mind that Piazza was a catcher. Or that he was entering his age-30 season. Or that, at the time, there were only 31 instances of a catcher playing 100 games in a season and posting at least an .800 OPS after the age of 33. The Mets traded two prospects to get Piazza and didn’t want him to walk away in free agency.
Signing Piazza long-term didn’t always feel comfortable to Phillips, but given the situation, it was the cost of doing business.
It isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, the Mets’ posture with Piazza 22 years ago and the Phillies’ predicament with J.T. Realmuto today. Piazza was a Hall of Fame hitter, a ballpark-filling megastar, and the classic rent-a-player after getting traded to the Mets four months before he could have become a free agent; Realmuto is a better all-around catcher but has less star power and is nearing the end of his second season with the Phillies, with free agency on the horizon.
But like Piazza then, Realmuto is 29 going on 30. Like Piazza, he was acquired from the Marlins for two young players (outfielder Preston Wilson and pitcher Ed Yarnall in Piazza’s case, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitcher Sixto Sanchez in Realmuto’s). And like Piazza, Realmuto wants to set an annual salary record for catchers — and maybe then some.
It’s a lot to consider despite the “Sign J.T.” chorus that has become part of the Phillies’ soundtrack in a fan-less summer. It’s also surprising, even to someone who has been there, that they haven’t swallowed hard, crossed their fingers, and made it happen by now.
“The thing about Realmuto, for me, is he improves your offense, he improves your defense, he improves your pitching,” Phillips said last week by phone. “I can’t imagine the Phillies in 2021 without J.T. Realmuto. I can’t imagine they would let it get there.”
But what if they do? What if the Mets had done so with Piazza?
The Mets traded for Piazza on May 22, 1998. Ten weeks later, with Piazza deluged by questions about an extension (“You might as well read the Weekly World News,” he told reporters. “There are more accurate reports in there.”), the Mets suspended contract discussions until after the season.
That gave Phillips time to research the aging curve of catchers.
“It’s just understanding the risk involved in what is a catcher going to look like at 35, 36 years old,” said Phillips, now a host on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio. “What are his legs going to be like? What’s his ability going to be like with the wear and tear? Once a guy got to 33, the numbers tended to really drop. They tended to really fall off.”
Gabby Hartnett and Carlton Fisk most-often defied age to stay behind the plate and be productive into their mid-30s. But there’s a long history of catchers eventually changing positions. Even when they’re younger, they can’t play every day. Knowing that Piazza wouldn’t likely start more than 135 games in a season, Phillips was leery of paying what he understood would be a premium price.
Piazza rejected the Los Angeles Dodgers’ six-year, $81 million extension offer at the outset of the 1998 season because he wanted a seventh year. He also wanted to become baseball’s first $100 million player.
“We knew it was going to be seven years. The question was how many dollars per year,” Phillips said, noting that Mets ownership, particularly Nelson Doubleday, believed the team needed Piazza’s star power. “We knew we were going to make him the highest-paid catcher.”
The Phillies have come to the same realization about Realmuto. They know they will have to beat Joe Mauer’s $23 million annual salary from 2010 to 2018, a record for catchers, and according to multiple sources, it’s believed that they’re willing to do so.
“When it comes to Realmuto, it doesn’t seem that complicated‚” Phillips said. “There’s got to be an acceptance that he’s going to be the highest-paid catcher on an [average annual value] basis. Then it’s going to come down to how many years. That’s going to be the issue.”
Well, unless Realmuto is aiming higher than merely Mauer’s bar.
As Realmuto went through arbitration in January, word was that agent Jeff Berry eyed an extension commensurate with St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt’s $26-million-a-year deal for five years. Goldschmidt, after all, is 3½ years older than Realmuto and doesn’t play a premium position.
But Goldschmidt is a better hitter, and the Phillies might doubt that a catcher can command $26 million per year, especially in a free-agent market that figures to be impacted by a coronavirus-shortened season.
Perhaps that explains why, after preliminary talks during spring training, the Phillies haven’t resumed those conversations. General manager Matt Klentak noted recently that “the landscape that we left in March is different from the one we return to now.”
Phillips said: “It may be that Realmuto’s camp said, ‘Sixty games, there’s not much risk here. Why don’t we just play it out and go to free agency?’Or it’s the pandemic, and the Phillies are saying, ‘What is the real value? Let’s just wait and see. We may pay a premium for it later, but will it really take us more than what we were willing to pay him before? We’ll take our chances knowing we’ll match whatever anybody else offers.’”
But that invites an entirely different kind of risk.
Although the Mets waited until after the season to pick up talks with Piazza, they didn’t wait so long that he reached the open market.
Phillips was attending the World Series in San Diego when he accepted an invitation to meet with Piazza’s agents in Beverly Hills. It wasn’t much of a negotiation. Not after Doubleday told reporters that he would guarantee a seventh year and pay Piazza $13 million per season.
“I go in saying, ‘All right, we’ll do seven years and we’ll go to $86 million,’ ” Phillips recalled. “They’re like, ‘Steve, we read the papers. We know your owner has said you can go to $91 [million]. So what are we doing?’ ”
Phillips agreed on the terms; Piazza did, too, even though he was days away from reaching the open market.
By all accounts, Realmuto likes playing in Philadelphia. He’s popular with the fans and enjoys his teammates, particularly Bryce Harper. Managing partner John Middleton loves him.
But if the Phillies came to Realmuto now with a $24-million-a-year offer for five years, would he take it? It’s unclear.
Looking back, Phillips believes Piazza fell for the bright lights of New York. And for as good a hitter as he was, Phillips suspects the market wouldn’t have produced many seven-year offers for a catcher.
“I think Realmuto probably has more options than Piazza did,” Phillips said, rattling off a half-dozen teams off the top of his head (Mets, Yankees, Blue Jays, Rangers, Cubs, Tigers) that might be potential suitors. “Mike wanted to become the highest-paid player in the game for a period of time. J.T.‘s not going to go there, so there will be more teams interested in that.”
Even in a depressed market. Realmuto believes top-of-the-market players will still receive big contracts, a suspicion seemingly confirmed by Mookie Betts’ 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers.
“Whatever offer was on the table in March I think would be on the table now,” Phillips said. “[Realmuto’s] going to get paid. All it takes is one other team. Whatever the discount might be with the pandemic, if there even is one for the best player at a position, is it worth taking a chance of not signing him” before free agency?
Ultimately, the Mets took the plunge for Piazza. He stayed behind the plate for seven years and slashed .289/.367/.534 with 197 homers during that span.
In some ways, Phillips sees Realmuto as a safer bet. He believes Realmuto is a better athlete than Piazza. And if the universal designated hitter is instituted in the next collective bargaining agreement, the Phillies could keep Realmuto in the lineup even when he isn’t catching.
“If you’re going to spend money, as they have indicated, it’s a guy you know, a guy that can play in Philadelphia, a guy that the fans like, that your team likes, that your manager likes, that has the talent and character that you want,” Phillips said. “There aren’t many players in the game that can offer that sort of overall impact.”