Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

What would a long-term deal for J.T. Realmuto look like?


J.T. Realmuto has had a strong first season with the Phillies. (Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Two nights after Bryce Harper said it would be “an absolute joke” if Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto didn’t win a Gold Glove, Harper and Realmuto embraced outside the Phillies dugout after Realmuto hit his 20th home run of the season.

Harper, of course, is under contract for 12 more seasons after 2019. One of the more pressing tasks on the agenda of general manager Matt Klentak this offseason may be making sure that Realmuto is behind home plate for the Phillies a good chunk of those years.

The Phillies landed Realmuto from the division-rival Miami Marlins in a February deal that saw them part with No. 1 pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez. To say it was one of the biggest trades in Phillies franchise history wouldn’t be overstating the magnitude of the deal.

From the first pitch that Aaron Nola fired to him on Opening Day, Realmuto has been the best defensive catcher in baseball. The 28-year-old has 11 defensive runs saved, is tied for the league lead in average pop time and is running away with the league lead in would-be basestelaers thrown out, as he currently has thrown out 34. As Harper said, he should run away with the Gold Glove Award in the National League. He’s probably worthy of consideration for the Platinum Glove Award – given to the best overall defender in each league – as FanGraphs says he’s been the best defender at any position in baseball in 2019.

However, for as impressive as Realmuto’s glove has been the entire season, it took a little for his bat to come around. Realmuto slashed .273/.328/.438 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs in 308 at-bats prior to the All-Star Break. Make no mistake, that’s still top five offensive production for a catcher, and when you factor in how dominant he’s been defensively, Realmuto was deserving of being an All-Star, whether the Phillies needed a representative or not. But given that he entered the year with much better career offensive numbers away from Marlins Park (and actually had more at-bats on the road), there was some thought he would see an offensive explosion playing his home games at Citizens Bank Park.

Since the All-Star Break, Realmuto has seen a noticeable uptick in his offensive production. The home run that he hit in the Phillies 12-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday was already his 10th home run since the All-Star Break, meaning he’s equaled his first-half home run output in 152 fewer at-bats. In total, Realmuto is slashing .295/.345/.928 with a .928 OPS since the midsummer classic.

At Realmuto’s introductory press conference in February, Klentak responded to questions about a potential extension for Realmuto by saying “I think it’s a good idea to date the person before you ask to marry them.” It’s safe to say that the Phillies have now gone on enough dates with Realmuto to find out that he’s a keeper. And there appears to be mutual interest in a long-term deal, as Realmuto said at the All-Star Break that he “wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of his career here” when referring to Philadelphia.

Realmuto has another year of arbitration eligibility in 2020, so he’ll be a Phillie in 2020 regardless of whether it’s on a long-term contract or not. But there doesn’t seem to be much to gain from either side’s perspective in playing 2020 out.

So what would the terms of an extension look like? ESPN‘s Jeff Passan opined earlier this week that Realmuto “deserves a nine-figure extension.” When you consider that the average annual value of Buster Posey’s eight-year/$159 million contract is $19.875 million, that checks out. No, Realmuto isn’t the same player Posey was at his peak – few catchers in baseball history have been. But Posey signed that deal in March of 2013. While salaries perhaps haven’t grown as rapidly as players would like this decade, there’s certainly been some inflation since 2013.

Realmuto will play in 2020 at age-29, so he’s not going to approach Posey’s deal in terms of years. The five-year/$82 million deal that Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Russell Martin signed with the Toronto Blue Jays before 2015 – his age-32 season – might be a better blueprint in that area. Five years at an average annual value between $20-$22 million would put the total value of a deal for Realmuto between $100 and $110 million. It does stand to reason that Realmuto’s agent Jeff Barry could seek a sixth year in a deal. It would be interesting to see where the Phillies draw the line in terms of years on an extension for Realmuto, and whether they would be willing to include some sort of option for a sixth year.

One thing the Phillies will have to do a better job of moving forward is spelling Realmuto throughout the season. August isn’t over yet and Realmuto has already caught 971.2 innings, which isn’t a career-high but is already more than he caught all of 2018. Realmuto’s athletic body should allow him to age well, but once he becomes a long-term investment, backup catcher needs to become a priority for the Phillies.

Perhaps the nugget that best sums up Realmuto’s first season in red pinstripes is that as the final month of the season nears, he already has a career-high 5.2 fWAR. Not only is that mark tied for 10th best among all position players in the sport, but it marks the first time since 2010 that a Phillies position player has posted an fWAR of 5.0 or higher (both Chase Utley and Jayson Werth did it that season). Realmuto is one of the best position players the Phillies have employed since 2000, and the Phillies figure to compensate him as such this offseason.

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