MLB free agency: How big will J.T. Realmuto's payday be and where will it come from?

Jim Salisbury
·5 min read

How big will J.T. Realmuto's payday be and where will it come from? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

As baseball's offseason takes shape, we will take a look at each player on the Phillies 2020 roster and where they fit in the future. We'll go through the roster by uniform number, lowest to highest for position players, highest to lowest for pitchers, and alternate daily.

Today: Catcher J.T. Realmuto

Career rundown

Like a lot of top players, Realmuto was a shortstop in high school. Marlins scouts got a peek at him filling in behind the plate one day, loved the promise they saw and selected Realmuto, as a catcher, in the third round of the 2010 draft. A decade later, he heads into free agency as a two-time All-Star widely considered the best catcher in the game for his work both behind and at the plate.

How he became a Phillie

Ready to emerge from a rebuild and make a run at the postseason, the Phillies traded three young players, including mega pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, to Miami for Realmuto in February 2019. Realmuto’s arrival was preceded by those of former NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and was followed a few weeks later by the arrival of Bryce Harper, another former NL MVP. The Phillies finished .500 in 2019 and four games under .500 in 2020, enduring September collapses in both seasons.

2020 season

Realmuto hit .266 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs. Despite missing 11 games down the stretch with a hip injury, he finished tied for first in homers and second in RBIs and extra-base hits (17) among big-league catchers.

Among catchers who have played 150 games over the last three seasons, Realmuto ranks first in extra-base hits (by a margin of 17), second in slugging (.493), third in OPS (.830) and fourth in batting average (.275).

Defensively, Realmuto’s throwing and framing are elite skills, according to Statcast data. He is also an elite baserunner with smarts and speed.

What lies ahead

This is the most important and fascinating on-field issue facing the Phillies this offseason. Realmuto will officially become a free agent the morning after the last pitch of the World Series, which begins on Tuesday night.

Realmuto, a great football player at his Oklahoma high school, has made it no secret that he’s carrying the money ball for all catchers, present and future. He is looking to significantly raise the bar for catcher salaries and Joe Mauer’s record $23 million average annual salary is probably just a starting point.

St. Louis first baseman Paul Goldschmidt’s five-year, $130 million contract ($26 million AAV) has been mentioned as a target for Realmuto, but there have been indications that the catcher is seeking an even bigger payday than that. There were whispers this summer that Realmuto had his sights set on something that began with a 2 — as in $200 million.

Realmuto, who will turn 30 in March, is looking for a record deal at a complicated time. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a drop in revenues throughout the game and that will surely impact free-agent spending this winter. Realmuto has acknowledged that potential impact while remaining confident he will get his payday.

“It definitely concerns me,” he said in July. “Necessarily not for myself, but it does concern me for the free-agency class as a whole. I mentioned a few months back that the top guys usually find a way to get their dollars. Teams are going to want them, you know. Maybe if it's not 20 teams that are in on you, now there'll be five to 10. I just think that a lot of teams will be able to look at this as a time to take advantage and actually go for it instead of backing off. As half the league will probably be trying to cut revenue and save some money and the other ones will look at it as an advantage to maybe go forward and press forward. I think that it could affect free agency as a whole, but for myself, I'm not really too worried about it.”

The Phillies were in negotiations with Realmuto when the shutdown hit in March. They will attempt to re-sign him, but owner John Middleton has acknowledged that another season of reduced revenues will impact the team's spending this winter.

“Can you tell me what the governor and the mayor of Philadelphia are going to allow us to have next year in the way of fans?” Middleton said earlier this month. “Because if you do, you know something that I don't. So I have no idea what we're going to be allowed. Obviously, that will determine our revenues, and revenues determine what you can do and what you can't do.”

If the Phillies don’t re-sign Realmuto, they will have a huge hole behind the plate. James McCann is the next best free-agent catcher and he could have a significant market as a less expensive alternative to Realmuto. Losing Realmuto could also put a strain on the relationship between the Phillies and Harper, who has 11 years left on his contract and has been very outspoken about keeping the catcher. Harper has not been bashful pointing out that he spread out the length of his contract so the Phillies would have the flexibility to sign other top players.

The New York Mets, with a new, deep-pocketed owner and a need at catcher, could be an aggressive suitor for Realmuto. The Yankees have been mentioned, as well. They have a need at catcher but could direct much of their offseason spending toward retaining DJ LeMahieu, their valuable infielder.

Realmuto’s free agency could be a lengthy process as teams vie for position and try to get a read on who actually will spend in a difficult baseball economy.

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