Modern baseball trades are so frequently just a reallocation of players to situations that suit them. A contending team needs an established big league regular, a rebuilding team wants prospects, and so the big leaguer is traded for the prospects. The contender gets stronger now; the rebuilding team gets stronger for the future. Teams fill their needs, and players get better opportunities. On and on we march toward Pareto optimality, prospects for stars, pitchers for position players, forever and ever, amen.
For months, the Marlins—not exactly a “rebuilding” team so much as a storefront for investor-class financial parasitism—dangled their last remaining established big league star, J.T. Realmuto, as trade bait. Realmuto might be the best catcher in the game right now, but it’s not exactly a crowded field, and he turns 28 next month and is two seasons from free agency. So when the Marlins asked the Reds for explosive outfielder Taylor Trammell, the no. 11 prospect in the Baseball Prospectus Top 101, they were rebuffed. When they asked San Diego for Francisco Mejía, no. 20 on that list and the top catching prospect in all of baseball, they once again came home empty-handed. One ludicrous trade demand after another failed, and yet the Marlins held firm.
On Thursday, though, the Marlins were rewarded for their patience. A sucker, in the form of the Philadelphia Phillies, presented itself. Realmuto is headed to Philadelphia in exchange for 25-year-old Jorge Alfaro, a solid big league catcher in his own right who still has potential to improve and is under team control through 2023. In addition to Alfaro, the Marlins will also receive the impact prospect they sought in Sixto Sanchez, a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher who ranked 23rd on the BP Top 101, plus left-handed pitching prospect Will Stewart and $250,000 in international bonus money.
Seeing a trade like this, in which a fringe contender pays through the nose for a marginal upgrade, in which one side so entirely fleeces the other, sends a tingle of nostalgia down my spine. It’s like hearing a Lifehouse song on the radio or spotting a bottle of Jolt cola in the supermarket cooler, as if a bygone era that was more interesting for its ungoverned silliness has reached out a tendril of friendship through space and time.
For their part, the Marlins got everything they wanted for Realmuto and more. Sanchez is one of the best pitching prospects out there, a 6-foot right-hander capable of chucking a triple-digit fastball, choosing from a huge menu of secondary pitches, and commanding all of them. Like every pitcher, Sanchez carries substantial injury risk. His size is a concern—smaller pitchers sometimes have trouble holding up for the 200 inning-a-year workload expected of a modern ace. He also missed substantial time last year with elbow soreness and has yet to throw 100 innings in a season. The risk of injury or a move to the bullpen is real. Nevertheless, Sanchez is the best pitching prospect the Phillies have had since Cole Hamels, at the very least, and now probably the best pitching prospect the Marlins have had since José Fernández.
Alfaro, one of the most physically gifted catchers in baseball, hit .262/.324/.407 in 2018, his first full year as a big league starter. He has plus power but is still refining his approach and contact skills. Last year, BP, which factors framing and blocking stats into its overall value metrics, ranked Realmuto as the best catcher in baseball, at 4.8 WARP. Alfaro was sixth at 2.5. If the Marlins’ goal is to get better, they’ve added two very good young players, plus a lottery ticket prospect and bonus money. If their goal is just to save money, they’ve shed Realmuto’s $5.9 million salary this year, plus whatever raise he’d get in arbitration for 2020.
Realmuto might be the best catcher in baseball, but the Phillies paid an incredible price to get him. That’s not the end of the world in and of itself; the Phillies are set up for a four-way dogfight for the NL East, and every additional win helps. But they could have made bigger upgrades elsewhere on the diamond without giving up Alfaro or Sanchez.
The Phillies, who have signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson to multiyear deals already this winter, have been active in free agency. But in November, principal owner John Middleton said the Phillies “might even be a little bit stupid” in the free-agent market.
It’d be defensible to trade Sanchez to upgrade from Alfaro to Realmuto, if other avenues of improvement had been exhausted. But here are some examples of bigger upgrades the Phillies could have made without giving up any prospects: Manny Machado at third base over Maikel Franco, Bryce Harper in right field over Nick Williams, Craig Kimbrel over anyone else in the Phillies’ bullpen, and Dallas Keuchel over at least one member of their starting rotation. For that matter, it’s not out of the question that Sanchez could have contributed to the Phillies’ rotation this coming season if he hadn’t been traded.
And if the Phillies were hell-bent on specifically upgrading from Alfaro, the other prime candidate for best catcher in baseball, Yasmani Grandal, was available via free agency. He signed a one-year, $18.25 million deal with the Brewers last month. Why weren’t the Phillies in on Grandal then if they’re so keen on Realmuto now?
This trade doesn’t preclude the Phillies from signing one or more of the remaining free agents, but now they have to actually go out and spend stupid money in order for the Realmuto trade to make sense. Even after signing Robertson and McCutchen and trading minimum-salary players for Jean Segura, Realmuto, and Juan Nicasio, the Phillies are about $85 million below the luxury-tax threshold. For $85 million in annual salary, the Phillies could at the very least sign Harper and Machado, and probably have room left over for one of Kimbrel or Keuchel. Even then, the Phillies could probably spend more—they consistently ran top-five payrolls the last time they were competitive, and, after slashing their payroll nearly in half from its peak in 2014 to its nadir in 2016, they ought to have some extra cash lying around to pay the tax. Even if they sign Harper or Machado now, they’ll have held serve at best this offseason.
Failing some major free-agent spending, the Phillies will have sacrificed a solid big league regular and their best prospect in order to save about $12 million (compared with just signing Grandal) on a moderate upgrade at catcher. That shouldn’t be acceptable behavior for a big-market team with designs on winning a competitive division. One way another, the Phillies will have been a little bit stupid.