CLEARWATER, Fla. — Twelve months ago, having just completed a trade for J.T. Realmuto, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak first addressed the possibility of a contract extension for the All-Star catcher.
"I think it's a good idea," he said, "to date the person before you ask to marry them."
It’s time now to propose.
Realmuto will attend a salary arbitration hearing Wednesday in Phoenix. Klentak and other team executives will be seated across the table. For a few hours, each side will present a case for what represents fair compensation for Realmuto this year. Realmuto wants to be paid $12.4 million; the Phillies are offering $10 million.
Within 24 hours, a three-person panel will choose one figure or the other. Regardless of the outcome, Realmuto insists there won’t be animosity. This is business. He and the players’ union are fighting to raise the salary bar for catchers. The Phillies and MLB labor relations have other ideas for where that line should be.
It’s all window dressing anyway compared to what will come next.
Realmuto, who will turn 29 next month, can be a free agent after the season. In a perfect world, the Phillies would lock up their most valuable player to a contract extension before he can get on the plane back to spring training in Clearwater, Fla. In reality, it’s going to take some time.
It might not even happen at all.
“We haven’t even started having those conversations,” Realmuto said, noting that all parties agreed to work through arbitration before taking further steps.
Here, then, are some relevant issues that will go into the extension talks, based on recent conversations with several industry insiders and observers:
You don’t trade a prized 20-year-old pitching prospect (Sixto Sanchez), a young catcher (Jorge Alfaro) and a minor-league pitcher (Will Stewart) — to a division rival, no less — for only two seasons of a player. The Phillies made a long-term investment in Realmuto long before they draw up the nine-figure contract that it will take to keep him beyond this year.
Having reached the cusp of free agency, most players feel little urgency to sign a multiyear deal. But Realmuto seems to enjoy being with the Phillies, having grown close with Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and other teammates last season.
As a catcher, Realmuto also is a foul tip away from significant injury. Surely, he realizes as much. If not, his agent, Jeff Berry, should advise him.
Berry, known as a fierce negotiator, held firm to the $12.4 million arbitration request. But he’s also a former minor-league catcher and the agent for Buster Posey, who signed a nine-year, $167 million extension with the San Francisco Giants in 2013, two years after breaking his leg on a play at the plate that spurred rules changes.
After back-to-back All-Star seasons and his first Gold Glove award last year, Realmuto likely will expect to surpass Joe Mauer’s record for the highest average annual salary for a catcher. Mauer made $23 million per year from 2011 to ’18 with the Minnesota Twins.
Indications are that the Phillies know they must reach that number. At the very least, they realize they will have to beat the four-year, $73 million free-agent deal that Yasmani Grandal signed with the Chicago White Sox in November.
But Realmuto’s camp might view St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt as a more appropriate comparison. Goldschmidt signed a five-year, $130 million extension last spring before what would have been his free-agent walk year.
One notable difference: Realmuto (.779 career OPS, .809 OPS over the last three seasons) can reasonably claim to be baseball’s best hitting catcher. But Goldschmidt (.930 OPS entering last season) is an elite hitter, period. If Realmuto wasn’t a catcher, his offensive numbers wouldn’t look as good.
In all likelihood, Realmuto will slot in between Grandal’s deal and Goldschmidt’s. But how much more than $23 million per year can he get? And given the physical demands of the position, will the Phillies guarantee a fifth year?
The answers might depend on how each side views the future value of a catcher, which might be about to change.
Realmuto is regarded as an expert framer with a knack for placing his mitt to compel strike calls from umpires on borderline pitches. But while pitch-framing is prioritized by progressive teams, the Phillies included, it will be mitigated when baseball implements an electronic strike zone, which could be coming within a few years. The priority then would be simply catching the ball, not presenting it in the strike zone.
Catchers nevertheless will still be tasked with controlling the running game, and Realmuto throws out baserunners as effectively as anyone. Moreover, catcher figures to remain a leadership position because of the game-calling component.
Let’s be clear: Middleton loves Realmuto. They’re both former wrestlers and share an intense competitive streak. As a lifelong fan, the Phillies’ managing partner also knows that every great team in recent franchise history was led by a standout catcher, from Bob Boone (late ’70s and 1980) to Darren Daulton (1993) and Carlos Ruiz (2007-11).
A year ago, Middleton wasn’t going to be denied signing Harper, even flying to Las Vegas to help close the 13-year, $330 million deal. It’s possible he will intervene again and do whatever it takes to make sure Realmuto stays right where he is for years to come.
But what if it doesn’t happen before opening day? Many players aren’t open to negotiating during a season.
"It’s something I’ll sit down and talk with my agent about,” Realmuto said. “We’ll communicate with Matt and let him know how we feel.”