The Philadelphia Phillies have a decision to make on catcher J.T. Realmuto given his age and position, considering he is set to receive a lucrative contract in free agency. This same dilemma may apply to another potential target this offseason: George Springer.
Catchers are known to age poorly after they turn 30. While exceptions, like Yadier Molina, do exist, it is more often than not that they decline and have to switch positions to first base or designated hitter as they age. This also holds true for outfielders, who are more valuable when they can play center field but often see a defensive decline as they age.
Springer, a long-time Houston Astro, is entering his age-31 season and has been one of the premier center fielders in baseball to this point. Since 2018, he ranks fourth among all major league center fielders in fWAR behind only Mike Trout, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Cody Bellinger.
Since he entered the majors in 2014, Springer has a .852 OPS. Considering center field has been an especially weak hitting position throughout the majors over the past few seasons, there is great value in a player who can man the position while producing at the plate.
His career has also been marked by elite postseason production. In 63 playoff games, Springer has 19 home runs. His October dominance continued in 2020, as he helped spark the Astros upset win over the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS.
Springer’s ability to play center field is a big factor in his status as a top available free agent but is also the biggest question moving forward. Even if he is able to maintain offensive production, his value greatly decreases if he is forced to move to a corner outfield position.
According to FanGraphs, Springer’s defense has been roughly average the past several seasons, with a UZR below 0 in two of the last four seasons. Per Baseball Savant, Springer ranked 15th in outs above average in 2020 among all center fielders. Given his age, it is not a guarantee that Springer can stay in center field long-term.
MLB Trade Rumors has Springer and Realmuto both projected to receive a five year, $125 million contract in free agency. Springer is a better offensive player than Realmuto, who has a career OPS below .800, but Realmuto is an elite defender at a more valuable position.
The Phillies have no clear future in center field or at catcher, so both Realmuto and Springer make sense as free agent targets. If the Phillies are choosing between the two, their decision will likely depend on how they see both players developing defensively.
Springer would be a wise signing for any team that is looking to spend money even if he can’t stick in center field. He would make the Phillies a more dangerous team and bolster a lineup that will need help if Realmuto and Didi Gregorius both sign elsewhere.
But the Phillies already invested greatly in a corner outfield position when they signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract prior to the 2019 season. And with a looming decision to make on Realmuto and a self-imposed budget, it appears unlikely that the Phillies will sign Springer this offseason.
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