The Real Deal – Why the Phillies Need to Sign JT Realmuto Long Term

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – JUNE 07: Philadelphia Phillies Catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) pulls down his mask in the third inning during the game between the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies on June 07, 2019 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

On Wednesday, it was announced that JT Realmuto had lost to the Phillies in his arbitration case. Realmuto had wanted $12.4 million, and the Phillies had offered $10 million. It was ruled that the Realmuto was worth the $10 million, so that is what he will make for the 2020 season.* But this story doesn’t end for either side yet.

Last year, the Phillies traded for an unhappy Realmuto, rescuing him from Miami in exchange for top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez and major league catcher Jorge Alfaro. Sanchez is continuing to work his way through the minors, and Alfaro is a great hitter, but nowhere near the defensive presence of Realmuto. The Phillies gave up these key assets because the man they were trading for was the best catcher in baseball.

One year later, he still is the best catcher in baseball, about to turn 29 in a month. He is coming off an average year by his standards, where he had an OPS of .820 and a WAR of 4.4, good for first and second in the league, respectively. He also threw out 43 runners last year, which was also the most in the league. Yasmani Grandal was second with 27.

So we’ve established that Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball, but how sustainable is this pace? The previous holders of the title “best catcher in the game” would be Buster Posey (2012-2017) and Joe Mauer (2006-2011). Both of their runs as the top catcher lasted about five years. There are also the rare cases like Yadier Molina, who has been a top-10 catcher for over a decade. Realmuto was first recognized as the best in 2018, so let’s assume that he also is atop the catcher’s mountain for five years. That means he only has three years left of peak performance.

If Realmuto only has three top years left, why do the Phillies need to sign him long term? Well, there are four reasons.

1. they gave up valuable pieces to get him.

2. he is an integral part of their chances to be a playoff-caliber team.

3. he can still be a productive catcher even after his prime.

4. the scarcity of elite catchers makes them incredibly valuable.

We already went over the prospects that the Phillies sent to get Realmuto, so let’s start with number two. The Phillies expected to make the playoffs last year. They added Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, JT Realmuto, David Robertson, and Jean Segura. They were ready to make a run at the NL East title, and were succeeding until early June, when Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL. After that, injuries to more than half of the bullpen, lack of progression from young pitchers, extended hitting slumps, and a second straight September collapse led to a disappointing 4th place finish. This year, there are lots of questions. On paper, the Phillies should be able to make the playoffs, but last year’s results have led to skepticism. Realmuto is as close to a sure thing as the Phillies have.

Number three is purely speculative. We have no way of knowing how Realmuto’s performance will be affected as he ages. He could decline gradually or rapidly.

Number four is the most important reason. The Phillies cannot let Realmuto walk away, because it is ridiculously hard to land a catcher of his caliber. Catcher is the most valuable position in baseball. They are not only hard to come by, but they also have an incredibly large impact on the game. They have some role in every pitch thrown by their pitchers, they play defense, throw runners out, and hit. A catcher has the largest impact on a game by a single player, so a having a good catcher is more important than having a good player at any other position.

The Phillies currently have one more year with the best catcher in baseball. His current contract results in him being a free agent at the end of the 2020 season. The arbitration process was only the first act. The Phillies still need to lock him into a new contract before he hits the open market, and they will have to pay up to be able to. Buster Posey got 8 years, $159 million from the San Francisco Giants. Realmuto will be looking for a larger yearly average, as every player would, so the Phillies will have to cough up over $20 million a year.

If they can get a deal worked out for 4-6 years at $20-$25 million a year, both sides should come away satisfied. The Phillies obviously have the Harper contract on the books, but they should be able to afford Realmuto. My guess? 5 years, $115 million. So, Realmuto will make $10 million in 2020, but could have over $100 million locked up before Opening Day.

 

*The last time the Phillies paid $10 million to a player after arbitration, it was Ryan Howard in 2008. That season went pretty well.