CLEARWATER, Fla. — Two days before their first spring-training game, the Phillies chalked up a victory.
The Phillies defeated catcher J.T. Realmuto in salary arbitration, a source confirmed Thursday. The two-time All-Star will make $10 million this season, still a record for a catcher in his third year of arbitration. Realmuto filed a $12.4 million salary request.
Now, though, the Phillies face a more challenging negotiation: signing Realmuto to a contract extension.
Both sides have interest in a long-term deal, although they agreed to delay talks until after the arbitration case was settled. Those conversations are expected to get started as soon as possible in an attempt to reach an agreement before opening day.
The Phillies gave up prized pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez and young catcher Jorge Alfaro to get Realmuto from the Miami Marlins before last season. Realmuto, who will turn 29 next month, enjoys playing in Philadelphia, and given the physical demands of catching, he likely wants the security of a nine-figure contract.
Agreeing on terms could prove difficult, though. General manager Matt Klentak routinely refers to Realmuto as the “best catcher in baseball,” and indications are that the Phillies realize they must give him more than $23 million per year. That is Joe Mauer’s record for the highest average annual salary for a catcher.
But Realmuto’s camp likely will aim higher. Keep this in mind: Paul Goldschmidt was entering what would have been his free-agent walk year when he agreed to a five-year, $130 million extension with the St. Louis Cardinals last spring. He was two years older then than Realmuto is now and doesn’t play a premium position.
The Phillies, of course, could counter that while Realmuto can claim to be the game’s best offensive catcher, Goldschmidt is an elite hitter regardless of position.
So, yeah, it’s complicated.
“I think having a guy like J.T. for the next six years would help us,” said Bryce Harper, one of Realmuto’s closest friends on the team. “He’s the best catcher in baseball. It all starts up the middle. You look at all the best teams in baseball. They usually have a pretty good staff and a really good catcher.”
Realmuto was back in Phillies camp and hitting in the batting cage after attending his hearing Wednesday in Phoenix. He was unavailable for comment after the verdict was rendered.
But Realmuto said earlier this week that he would “be happy either way” the case turned out. Matt Wieters held the previous record for a third-time arbitration-eligible catcher with an $8.3 million salary in 2015 with the Baltimore Orioles.
Even though team officials sat across the table from Realmuto and made a case for why he wasn’t worth as much as he was asking, both sides doubted there would be lingering animosity.
“I think he understands that it’s a business,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I think he’s a smart enough man and he understands that, ‘OK, this is one year and I’m a free agent and I’m not going to let this get in the way of my playing. I need to have a really good year.’ "
Realmuto said he hadn’t thought about whether he would be open to continuing those negotiations once the season begins.
“It’s something I’ll sit down and talk with my agent about,” Realmuto said. “We’ll communicate with Matt [Klentak] and let him know how we feel.”