Major League Baseball’s transaction freeze ends Friday at 12 pm ET. That means star catcher and impending free agent J.T. Realmuto has a key decision to make: He could re-engage with the Phillies on a potential contract extension or he could decline to do so and head into the season without a new deal.
Realmuto has plenty more options than just the two listed above. He could also negotiate in-season or even completely opt-out of the 2020 season. Opting-out would not make sense financially for Realmuto because it would be at the discretion of the Phillies whether or not to pay him and or grant him service time. This would most likely bar him from reaching free agency. Deciding not to play in 2020 would strictly be a personal decision unless there’s something we don’t know.
After weighing all of his options, one should make more sense than the others. Realmuto and his agent Jeff Berry should, at the very least, be willing to hear what the Phillies have to say.
This is especially true considering that Jim Salisbury said on NBC Sports Philadelphia’s “Phillies Return to Play” show that the team is willing to pay Realmuto $23 million a year over four to six years. If that holds true, the only thing Realmuto should be worried about is which fancy pen from Staples is he going to use to sign the contract.
In a scenario in which a pandemic did not interrupt the 2020 season, it seemed as those the two sides were gearing up to begin serious talks leading up to opening day. If in that scenario, the two sides did not come to an agreement before the first game of the season, it would probably have been in Realmuto’s best interests financially to play out the 162-game season and become a free agent.
In the real baseball world, however, things are looking very bleak.
In negotiations with the league, the MLB Players Association played the long game and kept their right to file a grievance in their back pocket. That means the union failed to secure any salary protections for the upcoming free-agent class, which will take the brunt of the league’s cost-cutting measures.
Realmuto told Matt Gelb of The Athletic back in May “I think the top tier of guys always seem to find a way to get their money.” This year might be the exception. Mookie Betts should have been baseball’s next $400 million-dollar man, but some people around baseball believe Betts won’t get anywhere close to that amount. Peter Gammons predicted in May that he would be lucky to get $250 million.
The pandemic will most likely affect every player who enters the free-agent market. More players who are eligible for salary arbitration will not be extended an offer, increasing the pool of players looking for work in the offseason. More ballclubs will be less active in free agency because of their team’s financial season, leading to excess supply and effectively lowering the price of free agents.
A majority of the teams who do participate in free agency may simply just be looking to fill holes. The best catcher in baseball isn’t a hole-filler but rather a significant investment that only a certain number of teams are willing to budget for. While the Phillies wouldn’t be the only team competing for Realmuto’s signature, it’s possible that any other team interested in Realmuto would not be willing to approach $23 million per year. Come November, why should the Phillies offer him a deal well above what other clubs are willing to pay for his services?
It’s reasonable to question why the Phillies would be willing to approach that number now. Maybe they can afford to wait until free agency to sign Realmuto. Perhaps they prefer to lock up their best player and are willing to pay a little more for peace of mind heading into this season.
Top-tier free agents like Betts and Realmuto also don’t have the luxury of simply signing a prove-it deal and waiting until 2021 to get the money they thought they would get. The 2021 class could also be affected by the pandemic as it is uncertain whether or not ballparks would be open for fans. News about a vaccine possibly arriving by late 2020 to early 2021 offers a glimmer of hope. Even then, the free-agent market could be significantly eroded if a labor strike is imminent.
To put everything in simpler terms, Realmuto’s bound to get a fair offer from the Phillies if he chooses to engage with the club on extension talks. If he waits for free agency, he might not like what he sees.
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