For the two months that the Phillies have played before an empty Citizens Bank Park, a group of fans calling themselves the Phandemic Krew has gathered outside an outfield gate with a distant view of the field, intent on showing their support anyway.
They bang drums. They blast air horns. And they chant: “Sign J.T.!”
That would be J.T. Realmuto, the team’s 29-year-old catcher. This season, he leads the team in both home runs (nine) and RBIs (26), and ranks second in slugging percentage, runs created, and WAR among the team’s batters, behind only Bryce Harper. Defensively, the 2019 Gold Glove award winner is widely considered one of the best catchers in the game, with a prowess at throwing out baserunners that is already the stuff of legend: He turned the most double plays of any catcher in the National League in 2019 and leads that metric so far in 2020. This year, he has provided highlights both big and small—and on occasion ones that seemed to defy physics.
Here is a look at J.T. Realmuto's three-run homer. Hit the inside edge of the top of the wall, bounced straight up and over the fence. pic.twitter.com/KlginLUpTv— Todd Zolecki (@ToddZolecki) August 25, 2020
Oh yeah, and one more thing: Realmuto is now less than 30 games away from becoming the most sought-after player in free agency. As just about any Phillies fan will tell you, it didn’t have to be this way.
Realmuto came to Philadelphia before the 2019 season courtesy of a trade with the Marlins. In exchange for the 2018 All-Star—who would make a second All-Star appearance the following year—the Phillies paid dearly, shipping off a package headlined by pitcher Sixto Sánchez, a promising young prospect with nasty breaking stuff and a 102 mph fastball. Sánchez recently made his debut for Miami, and—with a 10-strikeout outing Friday against the Rays that generated a swath of viral highlights—already looks like the kind of budding ace that Philadelphia could sorely use these days.
Sixto Sánchez, 100mph Fastball, 89mph Changeup and 88mph Slider, Overlay with Tails. pic.twitter.com/WUBCfjaDyL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 29, 2020
Still, Realmuto has more than lived up to the billing, and the catcher and the Phillies met this past winter to talk about the future. As Realmuto’s second season in Philadelphia—and the final season of his contract—loomed, it was clear that his next deal would be significant. He had been underpaid in his first contract; with a new deal, he is expected to redefine the market for catchers and seek at least four years and an average annual value of $20 million or more. San Francisco’s Buster Posey is the only current catcher to top that figure, thanks to an eight-year, $168 million extension signed in 2013. Realmuto’s closest parallel might be Yasmani Grandal, who signed a four-year, $73 million deal with the White Sox in 2019—the largest contract for any catcher in baseball after Posey. It’s reasonable for Realmuto to expect to set the new benchmark.
But instead of working out a deal, the team kicked the can down the road. First, the Phillies waffled on Realmuto’s 2020 compensation, with the two sides ultimately going to arbitration and doing little to improve the tenor of negotiations. Then, after the coronavirus pandemic threw the season into jeopardy, the Phillies effectively withdrew from talks. The gamble has been fairly explicit: As The Philadelphia Inquirer put it in July, “The Phillies are trying to gauge how the coronavirus, which will sap revenue from the game, will affect Realmuto’s market.” If the catcher’s asks were too dear after the 2019 season, maybe a ho-hum 2020 would push them down.
Ho-hum never happened. Instead, the player who manager Joe Girardi called “the best catcher in baseball” has been electric, thwarting any hope that he might drive down his price. Realmuto’s skills both at the plate and behind it make him a rarity in a league where few at the position thrive. At present, he and Grandal are far and away the best catchers in the game.
And there’s one other wrinkle: In July, the league’s other highly anticipated soon-to-be free agent, Mookie Betts, made history by signing a 12-year, $365 million contract extension with the Dodgers—making Realmuto the most exciting option on the 2021 market. The Phillies were alone at the bargaining table with their catcher after the 2019 season; after this one, they’ll have no such luck. And there’s little doubt that Realmuto will lend an ear to any team willing to help him achieve his goal of shifting the market. After negotiations with the Phillies fizzled earlier this year, the catcher told reporters he “[loved] this organization” but understood the matter as one of “the business of baseball.” There will be plenty of suitors this winter, and for a team suddenly reverential about the luxury tax, that could be a problem.
As a result, Philadelphia now finds itself in uncertain territory. The Phillies have spent the past half-decade mired in a rebuild that has yet to pay dividends. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, even after bulking up the team at the expense of a largely cleaned-out farm system and adding big-name free agents like Jake Arrieta in 2018 and Harper a year later. Should 2020 bring one more postseason miss—and it’s possible, with the Phillies at 16-15 and in the hunt for a wild-card berth in the expanded MLB playoff format—general manager Matt Klentak could find himself on the hot seat. With the August 31 trade deadline in the rearview mirror, the specter of Realmuto’s future gives this bizarro 2020 season surprisingly high stakes.
For the Phillies, the implications of falling short could be grim. The trade with the Marlins brought them a star at the expense of one of the best young arms in the game. If the team fails to capitalize on that, perhaps even sending off that star after a financial gambit that didn’t pan out, the mistakes could haunt the franchise for years to come. Perhaps the Phillies should just listen to the advice of Harper, who regularly wears a Realmuto shirt beneath his own jersey: “Sign him!”