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John Middleton says the Phillies never should have traded Sixto Sanchez if they couldn’t extend J.T. Realmuto’s contract

The Phillies' majority partner said it's "absolutely" a priority to re-sign Realmuto, but he can't guarantee that it will happen because of COVID-19's potential impact on the team's payroll.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, left, helped catcher J.T. Realmuto, center, with his jersey when he was introduced in February 2019.
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, left, helped catcher J.T. Realmuto, center, with his jersey when he was introduced in February 2019.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

It’s John Middleton’s story and he’s sticking to it.

In revisiting the trade for star catcher J.T. Realmuto 20 months ago, the Phillies managing partner claims he signed off on including prized pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez in the package of players that went to the Miami Marlins only because then-general manager Matt Klentak and others in the front office were optimistic about being able to extend Realmuto’s contract.

“At the time it was being considered, my position was, I’d be willing to trade Sixto as long as you extend J.T. And if you don’t extend J.T., I wouldn’t trade Sixto,” Middleton said last weekend after removing Klentak as general manager. “To me, we just needed to hold fast and be firm and not give up Sixto for just two years [of Realmuto] at that moment in our time. ... The baseball people thought they could get the extension.”

Middleton said the Phillies expect that Realmuto is “going to be headed to free agency. We figured that a long time ago.” Asked if re-signing Realmuto is a priority, Middleton answered, “Absolutely.” Bryce Harper has been vocal in his desire for the Phillies to keep Realmuto.

But Middleton also suggested that COVID-19 will impact the Phillies' payroll in 2021. Without knowing for certain that fans will be able to attend games for at least part of next season, Middleton can’t say for certain how much money the club will be able to spend, especially after cutting full-time employees' salaries in June and offering buyouts last month with the possibility that layoffs might follow.

Further, Middleton said he doesn’t blame Klentak for being unable to lock up Realmuto to a contract extension. The pandemic changed the landscape in March, when negotiations would have been ramping up.

Realmuto is believed to be seeking to become the highest-paid catcher in baseball history. Joe Mauer holds the record with a contract that paid him $23 million per year from 2011 to 2018.

Middleton’s characterization of the Realmuto trade differs from Klentak’s. In discussing the trade last month, Klentak said the Phillies knew that they might control Realmuto for only two years. It was a risk they were willing to take because they believed they were close to returning to the postseason.

It didn’t work out that way. The Phillies' playoff drought has reached nine seasons, while Sanchez dazzled as a rookie this year and has led the Marlins into the NL Division Series with five shutout innings last week in a wild-card round game at Wrigley Field.

“When you make that trade, you’re trading for two years of control and you know that,” Klentak said recently. “Sixto looked really good against us. He’s looked good this year. But we’ve had two very productive years of J.T. as well.”