In the coming days, it appears Dave Dombrowski will be introduced as the next president of baseball operations for the Philadelphia Phillies.
You can guess that one of the first beat reporters that gets the chance to ask him a question will say something to effect of “Welcome to Philadelphia, Dave – is re-signing J.T. Realmuto in your plans?”
If the Phillies miss the playoffs in 2021, it will mark the 10th consecutive year that the team doesn’t reach the postseason. During that timespan, the Phillies also don’t have a single winning season. As managing partner John Middleton put it in October when he announced that Matt Klentak was no longer the general manager and being reassigned within the organization, the Phillies have had a problem developing from within for much of their existence. Putting people in place to change that trend may ultimately decide whether the Dombrowski era in Philadelphia is viewed favorably or not.
But the most immediate thing for Dombrowski to figure out as he takes over as the head of the front office is whether the Phillies can and should re-sign Realmuto.
Middleton said in October that re-signing Realmuto was a priority, but expressed uncertainty about how much the organization will spend in 2021 because of COVID-19. No fans were present at the Phillies’ 30 home games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and Rob Maadi of The Associated Press reported that the team lost $145 million this past season in comparison to what they had internally projected to make before COVID-19. It’s unclear whether and to what extent fans will be able to attend games in 2021, and if Major League Baseball will play a full 162-game slate.
If Dombrowski comes to the organization under the pretense that the budget is extremely limited this winter, that likely means that the Phillies won’t re-sign Realmuto and/or Didi Gregorius. There’s certainly a more idealistic discussion to be had about how ownership groups in sports should act during uncertain economic times, but Dombrowski isn’t the owner. If ownership tells him that re-signing Realmuto isn’t in the budget, that’ll be that.
The more interesting discussion will come if ownership tells Dombrowski that they will pay for Realmuto if he believes it makes the most sense for the organization’s future, but if north of $125 million is committed to one player, there won’t be a ton for other areas of the team. Gregorius is a free agent, the Phillies could stand to add another starting pitcher and the bullpen was historically bad in 2020. Does re-signing Realmuto make sense if you don’t believe you can win a World Series with him during the next two seasons?
Realmuto is a superstar as far as his position is concerned. He’s one of the most complete catchers in the last 20 years. At the same time, he has dealt with injuries in each of his first two seasons in Philadelphia. He’s going to turn 30 before the 2021 season begins. If you sign him for five or six years this winter, you have to live with the realistic possibility that the position he plays could very well catch up to him in the second half of a deal.
If the Phillies believe they can win a highly-competitive National League East in 2021 with Realmuto, then re-signing him would seemingly make the most sense. But Matt Gelb of The Athletic reported Thursday that internally, the Phillies don’t believe they are “a quick fix.” If it’s going to be a year or two (at a minimum) before the Phillies honestly believe they are capable of making a deep playoff run, then maybe Realmuto doesn’t fit their timeline.
Naturally, Phillies fans were alarmed at how impressive Sixto Sánchez was in his first season with the Miami Marlins. The former Phillies’ prospect flashed frontline potential for a division rival, posting a 3.46 ERA in his first seven big league starts. It may prove that it wasn’t a wise decision for the Phillies to part with Sánchez, independent of who it allowed them to acquire. But they did in the February of 2019 deal that brought Realmuto to the Phillies, and his success may burn even more if Realmuto is no longer wearing red pinstripes in 2021.
Middleton admitted in an exchange with Phillies Nation back in October that he was hesitant to part with Sánchez without Realmuto agreeing to a long-term deal upon being acquired. Ultimately, though, he gave way to his baseball operations department, some of whom have been demoted and/or may be out of the organization entirely a year from now. Those decision-makers believed they could re-sign Realmuto, something that hasn’t happened to this point. Now, a new front office will take over, one they maybe wouldn’t have made the initial trade and isn’t tied to Realmuto in the same way that the previous one was.
A year from now, there may be a historic class of free-agent shortstops, one that could include Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa. Dombrowski may like to keep the option open that the Phillies can be players for one of those five, something that would be much more realistic if he doesn’t re-sign Realmuto.
So, welcome to Philadelphia, Dave. Congratulations on being immediately thrust into a free-agent decision that may be as important as any that you make during your tenure.
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