Why the Phillies are making the right move by waiting to sign JT Realmuto.
It’s not often that I agree with the Phillies front office. Since the organization’s run of 5 straight National League East championships ended nearly a decade ago, ownership and multiple general managers have made countless head scratching decisions leaving fans wondering how long it would take to see winning baseball again at Citizens Bank Park.
While Covid dominates the summer sports cycle usually reserved for debate over all-star snubs, bench clearing brawls and early award races the focus for Phillies fans has shifted toward the business side of baseball.
After dealing away young starter Jorge Alfaro and top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez for Realmuto in February 2019, Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak is feeling the mounting pressure. Giving away that kind of collateral for a two year rental that ends just as the team is ready to contend for another division title would be an unmitigated disaster for the 39-year old Klentak who was hired in 2015 to oversee their rebuild. And for a team with the sixth highest payroll in the league, it could be widely seen as a gross mismanagement of resources by Phillies owner John Middleton who is clamoring to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Nobody in the organization has been more vocal than Bryce Harper who was heard screaming ”Sign Him!’ during an intra-squad game last week. Harper also donned a t-shirt earlier in the month supporting the inking of JT to a new deal . Harper recently posted a photo to Instagram that contained a delivery pizza with the words ‘Sign JT’ scribbled onto the top of the box purportedly put there by the workers of a local South Philly shop. Tuning into local talk radio it’s clear that the fans are also in support of the organization keeping Realmuto. The Phillies front office has not seen this kind of pressure to act since the long drawn out courting of Harper led to his signing in the spring of 2019.
The good news is it seems like both sides are genuinely interested in getting a deal done. Given the increasing uncertainty surrounding Covid, poor labor relations and the overall lack of value being placed on the catcher position in the past decade, would it be a good idea for the Phillies to reset the market for Realmuto? With the teams goals and their previous investment placed in him, it seems most believe so. But what will a deal for Realmuto actually look like? By studying a few players who have been in similar situations we can achieve a better understanding for the details how a potential contract for the Phillies and Realmuto may turn out.
Realmuto, 29, certainly deserves to be among the highest paid catchers in the league. In 2019 he cemented himself as one the best at his position by hitting .275 with a career-high 25 home runs, adding a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger to his resume and garnering his second All-Star selection.
His 4.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was Top 50 for all players in Major League Baseball, grading out just behind Cleveland Indians’ Francisco Lindor.
The list below shows the top 6 average annual values at the catcher position for 2020. JT Realmuto is already near the top of the league despite still being arbitration eligible (source: Sportrac)
- Buster Posey: $22,177,777
- Yadier Molina: $20,000,000
- Yasmani Grandal: $18,250,000
- Salvador Perez: $14,200,000
- Wilson Ramos: $10,250,000
- JT Realmuto: $10,000,000
In 2019 MLB teams spent an average of $2,294,582 on their catcher position. The only other position with a lower average salary was for relief pitchers who pulled in $1,884,070. At the same time, the average first basemen made over $6 million in Annual Average Value (AAV).
One reason for the dearth of earnings at the catcher position could be that teams have been much more willing to split time among multiple players. In 2014, there were 23 catchers with at least 400 plate appearances, but that figure dipped to just 9 a year ago in 2019.
Additionally only two catchers topped 4.0 WAR in 2019: JT Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal. Compare that to just six years ago when five players had at least 5.0 WAR and two had 8.0 WAR.
Grandal, 31, is the best example to look at when examining just how much value Realmuto could command if the Phillies choose to let him hit free agency this November 2020. Both would enter free agency north of 30 years old and share very similar offensive and defensive numbers.
Realmuto: 538 AB .275 92R 25 HR 83 RBI
Grandal: 513 AB .246 79R 28 HR 77 RBI
Defensively the two catchers graded out similarly behind the plate. Both Realmuto and Grandal scored in the top 10 ‘Runs Extra Strikes’ also known as the art of ‘pitch framing’, which speaks to how well a catcher receives a pitch in a way that makes it more likely for an umpire to call it a strike.
This past winter Grandal signed a 4 yr/$73,000,000 contract with the Chicago White Sox, at an annual average salary of $18,250,000. The road to this long-term deal was by no means easy for the veteran catcher. During an ice cold 2018 offseason, he turned down his 1 yr/$15,000,000 qualifying offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Later in a winter dominated by the slow signing of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, Grandal saw a rumored deal with the Mets for 4 yr/$66,000,000 fall apart.
Grandal ended up signing what amounted to a 1 year pact with the Milwaukee Brewers for only $18 million. Woudn’t it make it sense for Realmuto to command something similar to Grandal in years and AAV?
Despite similar statistics Realmuto is generally regarded as the better player around the league. But signing a deal with less than $20 million in AAV would certainly be considered a disappointment to his agency CAA Sports. Realmuto’s representatives will likely be looking to approach the record 8 yr/$184,000,000 ($23mil AAV) that Joe Mauer signed in 2011 at the age of 28 with the Minnesota Twins.
Realmuto will also be a full 4 years older than the Giants Buster Posey when he signed a 8 yr/$184,000,000 deal in 2014 at the age of 26. It is unlikely that Realmuto could command a similar deal and be trusted to remain behind the plate as he reaches his late 30’s.
With long-term contract demands for top players now approaching $30 million AAV, would it be smart for the Phillies to commit similar money to Realmuto? Not everyone believes Realmuto is worthy of this expensive a deal.
One MLB front office executive, who asked to remain anonymous, doesn’t believe Realmuto will come anywhere close to the number of years given to Mauer or Posey. This belief makes sense given the aforementioned devaluing of the catcher position and Realmuto’s advanced age. However, the anonymous source went on to concede that he could see Realmuto garnering a similar AAV in a 4 or 5 year deal.
One final player who was in a similar position entering his 30’s with free agency is St. Louis Cardinals franchise cornerstone Yadier Molina. Before the 2013 season, Molina in the midst of his prime signed a 5 yr/$75,000,000. More recently as he entered the twilight of his career, Molina was able to raise his AAV in his next contract for 3 yr/$60,000,000. These examples strongly reinforce the impression that MLB teams have been hesitant to hand out large contracts to catchers nearing their 30’s.
It would be a mistake to make a similar commitment to the one given to Mauer or Posey earlier in the decade. Realmuto is not the franchise leading cornerstone player that either of those players were. In an age-obsessed sport, the Phillies would essentially be paying Realmuto in the hopes that he would gradually increase his offensive output in the twilight of his prime, which is unlikely and presents quite a risk.
The Phillies should not dwell on the fact that they have already given up prospects to justify overpaying Realmuto. Throwing good money after bad situations is something fitting of a Phillies front office that tends to keep fans up at night.
The Phillies would be smart in letting Realmuto reach free agency rather than granting him a record breaking deal before they can gauge the market for a franchise catcher. Recent history and trends within the game simply doesn’t support the purported numbers coming out of Realmuto’s camp.