Phillies Phinally Re-Sign J.T. Realmuto
When the Phillies entered free agency negotiations with star catcher J.T. Realmuto, both sides had clear goals for what they wanted to get out of the situation. For the Phillies, they obviously wanted to bring back J.T. at a price they deemed fair especially in the context of the depressed Covid-19 free agent market. J.T.’s goal for a few years now has been to set a new precedent for catchers on the open market and break the record for highest average annual value for a catcher which was set by Joe Mauer at $23 million per year. On Tuesday, when the Phillies and Realmuto reached a deal worth $115.5 million over five years (Craig Mish broke it on Twitter), it was a rare win-win for all parties involved.
Matt Klentak was…. right?
Prior to the beginning of the 2020 season, Phillies fans were persistent in trying to get the team to reach a deal with J.T. and get the whole thing over with. At the time, I was thinking along the same lines because it removes any sort of distraction from the season for J.T. and the team and does not risk him leaving in free agency. However, had J.T. signed before the pandemic, he likely would’ve earned a much larger contract. Realmuto and his camp were initially asking for a contract around $200 million, and while he likely wouldn’t have gotten a deal that high, it would’ve been much higher than the deal he eventually agreed to because his market would’ve been much more active. Matt Klentak was able to accurately assess the situation and deemed it viable to wait until free agency to make the push to bring him back. While this obviously wasn’t because he foresaw the impending pandemic and subsequent revenue loss across the league, it ultimately resulted in the Phillies saving millions.
As we’ve seen all throughout baseball this season, spending is down across the board. Owners claim to have suffered revenue losses to such a degree that they seem to be in agreement to keep the market depressed and the prices down. As a result, J.T. Realmuto ended up signing for a lot lower of a number than he likely would’ve in a normal year, but $115.5 million is still a fair deal. It gives him security for the remaining years of his prime until his age 34 season and it also allows him to accomplish his goal of earning the highest AAV for a catcher in MLB history. J.T.’s AAV will be $23.1 million each year of his contract, which is only $100,000 higher than the previous record, but reflects just how much it meant to him to try to set this precedent.
The market for J.T. seemed to be drying up for everyone outside of the Phillies. At the time of the signing, the only other team that was really rumored to be interested were the Braves, which I do not believe was legitimate considering they have Silver Slugger Travis d’Arnaud locked up for another year. The Phillies likely did not have to go as high as they did to get J.T., and they certainly didn’t have to add on the extra $500,000 that ultimately put him over his goal. However, it seems they knew what that meant to him and were willing to compromise in order to make sure he was content, which is a good thing. J.T. is happy with his deal and the Phillies should be happy to get their guy back for a multitude of reasons.
What if the Phillies didn’t sign J.T.?
Re-signing J.T. was the top priority for the team this offseason obviously for team-building reasons when you look at his offensive and defensive fit within the lineup. It also had to be the top priority because it would’ve been a PR nightmare in more ways than one if the Phillies let their star catcher walk. Phillies fans would’ve never forgiven the team if the new fan-favorite was gone after just two seasons of playoff-less baseball, and for good reason. At the time, the trade that landed Realmuto for the Phillies was one that made a great deal of sense for them. Sixto Sanchez was a highly-coveted pitching prospect, but also had questions in regard to his arm health and longevity. Now, Sixto has proven to be one of the most electric young pitchers in the game in his short time in the majors. While it’s not possible to go back and reverse the trade, the Phillies still always had the opportunity to retain the valuable asset they received from the deal. Knowing what we know now, giving up Sixto Sanchez for what ultimately would’ve been a rental of the best catcher in baseball would’ve been obscene. Fans spent all summer imploring the team to make the move and lock up J.T. long-term. Nobody knows this better than whoever runs the Phillies’ official twitter account, as they quickly found out they wouldn’t be able to tweet anything without reading “# SignJT” hundreds of times in the replies. Fans likely would’ve lost a great deal of interest after seeing the team unwilling to spend on a cornerstone player on the field and a fan-favorite.
There’s also the optics of how it would be perceived by the Phillies' best player, Bryce Harper, if they failed to re-sign J.T. When J.T. was traded for in 2019, it was largely to convince Harper to sign with the Phillies. Harper and Realmuto are good friends outside of baseball and Bryce has often lauded him as a player prior to them being on the same team. Acquiring J.T. was certainly a large factor in Bryce’s decision to sign with the Phillies, and another reason why it was imperative that they retain him. If in his first two years with a team that sold him on their commitment to do whatever it took to win, the Phillies failed to spend aggressively to improve the team, missed the playoffs twice, and ultimately didn’t retain one of his best friends and favorite other players in the league, it’s reasonable to believe that Harper could’ve ultimately requested a trade to look for a better situation, and I don’t think I would’ve blamed him. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like we have to head down that path.
Potential Downsides of the Deal
The conversation around J.T. Realmuto’s contract negotiations always centered around the risk involved with signing a catcher to a long-term deal through his thirties, but I think this concern is a little overblown. Yes, catcher is a position where players do routinely break down faster due to its demanding nature, and a large concern with extending Realmuto through his mid-30s was the question of what a thirty-four year old Realmuto looks like. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that a catcher is simply going to breakdown physically when they reach their mid-30s. Look at Kurt Suzuki or Yadier Molina, ages thirty-seven and thirty-eight respectively. While the two of them are certainly out of their primes, they are still solid contributors to their teams and play valuable defense behind the plate. My point is that players have certainly done it and lasted beyond their “shelf-life” at catcher, and I’d bet J.T. will too. J.T. is an incredible athlete and in great shape to begin with, and it’s fair to believe he’s going to keep taking care of his body as he gets older. J.T. also didn’t grow up being a catcher consistently. In high school, he would occasionally catch when the main catcher would go into pitch, but didn’t transition to being primarily a catcher until around the age of nineteen, when a Major League scout saw him play the position and asked him about pursuing that spot professionally. What that means is that J.T. missed out on about a decade or more of wear-and-tear on his body that most guys who play the position would’ve had at that point and that’s a large reason as to why I believe he will be more than productive for the entire length of the contract.
Well, They # SignedJT, What Next?
The Phillies came into this offseason with holes at catcher, shortstop, centerfield, in the starting rotation, and in the bullpen. As of today, they’ve addressed catcher and they’ve bolstered the bullpen, but they need to keep making additions. Aside from Alec Bohm, the Phillies' core players are all in their primes and in their late-twenties to early-thirties. Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins are both twenty-seven, Bryce Harper is twenty-eight, J.T. is twenty-nine, and Zack Wheeler is thirty. The window for them to contend and win is now and they have to try to maximize the contracts of Harper, Realmuto, and Wheeler.
Shortstop is rumored to be the most pressing need for the Phillies, as it should be. On the same day as the J.T. signing, Marcus Semien signed with the Blue Jays, Andrelton Simmons with the Twins, and Freddy Galvis with the Orioles. The Phillies were rumored to be interested in all three of these players, as well as Didi Gregorius, who remains unsigned. The Phillies need to address the shortstop position because their alternative is a middle infield consisting of Jean Segura and Scott Kingery, and nobody wants to do that again. As of now, it’s probably most likely that the Phillies go for Didi who proved his value last year on a one-year deal as a consistent brightspot in the Phillies' lineup. Didi is rumored to want a two-year deal worth around $30 million total, which would be a fair price tag, however the length gets brought into question. The Phillies really only need to sign a shortstop for one year to bridge the gap until next season where they can pursue shortstops on the market or see what they have in Bryson Stott. Signing a two-year deal with Didi likely takes them out of the mix for what is going to be a stacked free agency market for shortstops with players like Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javy Baez, and more, however it’s not necessarily wise to bank on signing an elite level player like one of those guys, especially if it means failing to address a need in the present. I would be in favor of bringing Didi back on a two-year deal for the right price because he proved last year to be one of the Phillies' most consistent hitters and a positive clubhouse presence.
After J.T.’s deal is officially on the books, the Phillies' payroll for the 2021 season will be at around $179 million. Last season, the payroll was at $204 million and the luxury tax threshold at $208 million. Assuming the Phillies want to be around the number they were at last year and keep some flexibility in the payroll for a potential midseason acquisition, they have around $25 million left to spend this offseason. A Didi contract for $15 million would leave them with $10 million, which they could use on a centerfielder or to bolster the bullpen. I think the Phillies should sign Didi, pursue either Shane Greene or Jeremy Jeffress to add to the bullpen, and trade for a player like Andrew Benintendi. While Benintendi definitely profiles better as a corner outfielder, a resurgent offensive season would make up for the small loss in defensive value, and he can shift over to left when Andrew McCutchen’s deal expires. Overall, the Phillies have had a solid offseason thus far, but they can’t be done improving if they are serious about attempting to contend in what is shaping up to be the best division in baseball.
The long Philadelphia nightmare is over and the Phillies were finally able to re-sign J.T. Realmuto, bringing positional stability, standout defense, and consistent offensive production. Phillies fans will undoubtedly feel relief that this ordeal is over and should feel optimistic that this move signals the team’s willingness to improve and end the decade-long playoff drought. I, for one, am very excited to once again buy into this frustrating baseball team we all love come Opening Day.
Go Phils! Welcome Back J.T.!