When Bryce Harper was introduced as a Philadelphia Phillie in March of 2019, he referred to his new teammate J.T. Realmuto as “his favorite player” in baseball. When you consider that Harper said in his final media availability of the 2020 season that “Realmuto needs to be our catcher next year, plain and simple,” it feels safe to say that preference still stands.
So what happens if the Phillies don’t ulimately retain Realmuto?
Set aside, for a second, any debates about whether the Phillies can, should or will re-sign Realmuto this winter. Let’s say for a second that someone other than Realmuto is starting at catcher for the Phillies on opening day 2021. Is Joe Girardi worried that Harper will be discontent when he returns for his third season in Philadelphia?
“You know, I think you always worry about how players are going to handle things when things maybe don’t go exactly the way they want or they think they should go,” Girardi admitted. “Obviously, I’ll sit down and have discussions with him, and I’m sure Dave [Dombrowski] will probably have discussions with Bryce about ‘Look, we want to win just as badly as you do, trust us. And we’re going to do everything we can to bring a championship to Philadelphia. Sometimes, things don’t go exactly the way you want, but you gotta trust us.’ You gotta trust Dave and what Dave is going to do.”
The New York Mets, who many believed would sign Realmuto at the outset of the offseason, ultimately bowed out early in the sweepstakes, instead signing James McCann to a four-year/$40 million deal over the weekend. Certainly, the team expected to spend the most money this offseason not ending up as a major player for Realmuto increases the chances that his asking price ultimately comes down to an area that the Phillies are comfortable with.
Make no mistake, though, it will burn in a lot of senses for the Phillies if Realmuto walks away. He’s been arguably the most complete player on the team over the past two seasons, and even with him, the Phillies weren’t able to reach the postseason or post a winning record. Should he depart in free agency, you’ll be left to wonder if the Phillies aren’t more likely to finish in last place in a crowded National League East in 2021 than in first.
The relationship between Harper and Realmuto, though, seemingly extends beyond just being teammates. The two and their wives got dinner in Las Vegas, Harper’s hometown, on Oct. 25. Perhaps it began as just being teammates, but now the two are friends, and Girardi can relate to disappointment in potentially losing one of your favorite teammates.
“There’s friendships that sometimes play a role in that, and I get that. I’ve been with teammates that I loved being a teammate with and the next year they’re not there and it’s a little bit difficult. But you form new relationships and you get involved in the season and then it just kind of becomes normal again. But, in a time where you aren’t extremely busy, I think you probably think about it a lot more.”
Would Harper hide his discontent when he arrives at spring training (assuming there is spring training) if Realmuto signs elsewhere this offseason? Maybe not, but then it will be a story for a few days, and ultimately he’ll still be tasked with playing right field for the Phillies in 2021.
Should Realmuto leave, it’s a very real possibility that the Phillies don’t reach the postseason in any of Harper’s first three seasons with the team. (That possibility also exists, if Realmuto returns, for the record.) For that to happen, even as he’s been excellent, would be a massive disappointment. But then a potentially historic class of free agent shortstops will be looming, and if the world is back to normal, the Phillies may be more inclined to spend next winter. Perhaps spending big money on Francisco Lindor or Carlos Correa next offseason would ultimately prove to be a better way to maximize Harper’s time with the team, even if such a scenario would create more frustration in the short term.
The truth is, there’s not a ton Harper could do if he was upset about the trajectory of the team. He has 11 seasons remaining on his contract, and he insisted on not having an opt out in his contract so his future (and that of his family) was set in stone. From a stability standpoint, that makes sense. However, he can’t hold the Phillies feet to the fire the way he maybe could have if he had the possibility of opting out after the fourth or fifth season of his deal. For better or for worse, Harper is going to be here.
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