The Philadelphia Phillies are entering a crucial offseason in which they have to decide on whether to re-sign two of their best offensive players from 2020.
One of those players, J.T. Realmuto, is widely considered the best position player in free agency this season. Over the last two seasons, Realmuto has led all major league catchers in several offensive and defensive categories, while posting the 14th highest fWAR of all position players.
Realmuto reportedly may seek as much as $200 million in free agency, and even if his number does not get that high, it is unclear if managing partner John Middleton and the Phillies will be willing to meet the asking price of a catcher that will be 30 years old when the 2021 season opens.
If the Phillies fail to re-sign Realmuto, these are some of the options to be their backstop in 2021:
Andrew Knapp came out of nowhere to have an excellent 2020 season. While he had been adequate as a backup catcher in years before, he took a step forward and finished the season with an excellent .278/.404/.444 slashline.
Even though Knapp is not expected to continue to produce near this level, he showed offensive capability in 2020 and has steadily improved behind the dish during his time with the Phillies. And if the Phillies fail to re-sign Realmuto, Knapp will have to step up to take a larger role, even if he still remains the No. 2 catcher on the depth chart.
When Realmuto was sidelined with a hip injury late in the season, the Phillies called up 21-year-old Rafael Marchan, who had never played a game above High-A. Marchan impressed in the three games he played, showing defensive capability behind the plate and mashing a home run, which he had never done before professionally.
Marchan’s bat is still likely not major league ready, but his ability as a receiver behind the plate makes him a potential backup candidate for the Phillies in 2021. While the team is likely to try to bring someone in if Realmuto leaves, there is still a possibility for Knapp and Marchan to be the top two catchers for Joe Girardi to open the 2021 season.
Outside of Realmuto, James McCann is probably the best catcher available in free agency. McCann has come alive at the plate recently, with an OPS of .808 over the last two seasons after a poor .654 OPS in his previous four.
McCann’s defense has also steadily improved, although framing remains a weak point of his game. Phillies coaches have done a good job of improving catcher’s framing, so perhaps that’s an area that believe that McCann could improve on.
Another option is Yadier Molina, who has been in the majors since 2004 and spent his entire career with the St. Louis Cardinals. While his bat is no longer a strength, Molina remains one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.
A likely Hall of Famer, Molina is also known for receiving abilities and has handled some great pitching staffs in St. Louis. He would certainly not come close to Realmuto’s production at the plate, but would be a valuable player to have behind the plate.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino is set to be a free agent, and he could make sense for the Phillies this offseason. Zunino had a .615 OPS over his last three seasons, but his .824 OPS during the previous two seasons shows he has a higher upside at the plate. For what it’s worth, Zunino’s bat has come alive in the postseason, as he’s homered four times in 37 at-bats.
Zunino is also one of the best defensive catchers in the game, which makes him an attractive target for the Phillies if they fail to bring back Realmuto. The Phillies know they cannot replace Realmuto’s production at the plate, but bringing in someone that can provide similar value defensively may be the ideal way to make the best of a suboptimal situation.
Outside of these options, there are several free agent catchers who would be platoon options with Knapp instead of outright starters. These include Kurt Suzuki, who most recently spent time with the Washington Nationals, Austin Romie, who started for the Detroit Tigers over the past two seasons and Tyler Flowers, most recently the backup for the Atlanta Braves. Bringing in one of these options would likely mean a platoon with Knapp.
One of the potential destinations for Realmuto is the New York Yankees. If the Yankees do sign him, they will no longer have a need for catcher Gary Sanchez. Sanchez was a top prospect when he entered the league in 2016, and has had some success at the plate with a career OPS of .841 and two seasons with over 30 home runs.
But Sanchez struggled greatly in 2020 when he posted a .618 OPS, and although he has improved defensively, he still is considered to be one of the less valuable catchers behind the dish, having posted -4 defensive runs saved. Still, the upside is there, and if the Yankees are indeed ready to move on from Sanchez, perhaps the Phillies would show interest.
Another trade candidate is Cleveland Indian Roberto Perez, who is one of the better defensive backstops in baseball. Perez also had an outstanding season at the plate in 2019 when he hit 24 home runs, but he came crashing back down to earth in 2020 with a .429 OPS.
The Indians have a $3.5 million option on Perez in 2021, so he could also be a free-agent target for the Phillies. But assuming the Indians pick up the option, a trade could make sense assuming the cost to acquire Perez could be relatively low.
Jorge Alfaro did not start a postseason game for the Miami Marlins, which points to the fact that they may be ready to move on. While it is unlikely the Phillies would re-acquire the 27-year-old catcher, he could be someone to keep an eye on.
The reality here is that if the Phillies fail to bring Realmuto back, they are guaranteed to see a drop off in production at the catcher position. There are some respectable options internally and externally, but no option available has Realmuto’s ability at the plate.
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