During his press conference announcing the reassignment of former general manager Matt Klentak, Philadelphia Phillies managing partner was fairly open in his assessment of J.T. Realmuto’s future – the team would like him back, but they aren’t prepared to write a blank check for his services.
In what amounted to his season-ending meeting with the media, Middleton acknowledged that the Phillies expect Realmuto will test free agency, and the financial repercussions of COVID-19 could affect how much the team is willing to spend to retain him.
“I can’t tell you. Can you tell me what the governor [of Pennsylvania] and the mayor of Philadelphia are going to allow us to have next year in the way of fans? Because if you do, you know something that I don’t,” Middleton told the collective media.
“I have no idea what we’re going to be allowed,” Middleton said in reference to how many fans Citizens Bank Park could hold next season — if any. “Obviously, that’s going to determine revenues and revenues determine what you can and can’t do.”
The question then becomes, how much will Realmuto seek in free agency and at what point should the Phillies bow out of the bidding?
At the outset of the offseason, both Jon Heyman of RADIO.COM Sports and Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia suggested that Realmuto’s camp planned to used Joe Mauer’s eight-year/$184 million deal as a comp this winter.
However, it’s not exactly clear in what sense that will be the case. Salisbury wrote that Realmuto and agent Jeff Barry are targeting a deal “way beyond the $23 million” that Mauer collected annually as part of his deal. Fair enough. Heyman seemed to agree with that, but also added that Realmuto could open free agency looking to match Mauer’s deal in terms of years as well. That’s an entirely different discussion.
Realmuto is a two-time All-Star, and had there been an All-Star Game in 2020, he almost certainly would have been there as the starting catcher for the National League. The debate here isn’t about whether he’s the best catcher in the sport right now. But he’ll turn 30 next season. What will he be as a catcher in three years? Will he even still be catching on a regular basis in five or six years? How diminished is his value if he plays another position, at least on a part-time basis, as both Mauer and Buster Posey have done as they’ve aged.
In theory, how much Realmuto makes on an annual basis is less of a concern here. Would you be willing to give Realmuto $25 or $26 million for four or five years? Almost certainly. (Although, if the Phillies are a little tighter in terms of how much they’re willing to spend, perhaps that shouldn’t be taken for granted.)
Still, the bigger concern here is the amount of years. It may be that Realmuto reaches the free-agent market, hoping to make a statement on behalf of all catchers, and the market is just unwilling to give him a seven or eight-year deal. Realmuto filed for $12.4 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, but an arbitrator decided that wasn’t in line with what the market was for catchers, and sided with the Phillies position of a $10 million salary for 2020.
Perhaps free agency will bring a similar result for Realmuto. If so, having employed him for the last two seasons, the Phillies would seemingly be in a good position. While Realmuto could be lured elsewhere, his preference reportedly is to remain with the Phillies. If he’s ultimately willing to accept a five-year deal in the neighborhood of $130 million, that’s the type of deal that the Phillies would seemingly be more likely to meet.
The problem would come if Realmuto is able to get six or more seasons in an offer from another suitor, which Heyman has predicted he will. An even larger problem is the fear that said offer could come from another National League East team, like the New York Mets or Washington Nationals.
You do have to be objective here, though. Yes, if the Phillies traded Sixto Sánchez to the division-rival Miami Marlins for only two years of Realmuto, that would be hard to swallow, something Middleton acknowledged last weekend. Heck, even if you re-sign Realmuto, that may prove to be a regrettable trade.
But you don’t want to make a second mistake to overcompensate. In the short-term, it would certainly burn if Realmuto signed a six-year deal in excess of $150 million to join the Mets or Nationals. But in three years, would you regret not giving that deal out? Would you like to owe a catcher approaching his age-33 season nearly $80 million?
The fact that the Phillies may not have a general manager in place could affect their willingness to give out such a long-term deal as well. It stands to reason that the organization could be a more attractive place to take over later this offseason or next offseason if the new executive is inheriting some level of payroll flexibility, as opposed to being pressed up against the luxury tax threshold with a roster that’s turned in mediocre results the past three seasons.
When push comes to shove, a five-year deal in the neighborhood of $120-$130 million with at least a partial no-trade clause would probably be a fair mark for the Phillies to meet this offseason. Whether they would be willing to – and whether that’s ultimately the type of deal Realmuto would be prepared to sign for – remains to be seen.
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