The Phillies have a lot of difficult decisions to make this offseason. A decision on a new manager needs to be finalized. Half of the starting infield is likely to be changed, not to mention the desire to upgrade at least 40 percent of the starting rotation.
Relative to those decisions, signing J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension looks simple. Most Phillies fans feel that way.
But is it a no-brainer if the terms are in the neighborhood of the 5 years and $112 million that Corey Seidman recently suggested? Let’s examine some of the key talking points.
"J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball"
That statement has been made plenty of times over the past year. It might be true. He’s certainly the most complete catcher. I’m not certain that Realmuto’s versatility makes him more valuable Gary Sanchez and the sheer power he brings to the Yankees. Sanchez did have an awful postseason. But you do have to be there to be bad there. Regardless, it’s unquestionable that Realmuto is on the short list of top catchers in baseball.
But should that conversation even matter?
If you look at Realmuto solely as a hitter, he’d probably fit in somewhere between the 65th and 80th best everyday batter this past season. His .820 OPS ranked 69th amongst qualifiers in MLB. Next on that list, 70th with an .819 OPS, is Rhys Hoskins. I don’t imagine many Phillies fans would be lining up right now to give Hoskins $22 million-plus per year.
This is where you point out Realmuto’s world-class defense at the diamond’s backbone position.
There’s no doubt Realmuto is the best in baseball at controlling the run game. He’s topped 31 percent in the caught stealing department in each of the last four seasons, including a mind-boggling 47 percent this past season. Baseball Prospectus measured Realmuto as the fourth-best defensive catcher in 2019 when factoring throwing, blocking pitchers and pitch-framing.
That invites the question: What did Realmuto’s great defense mean as far as overall run prevention for the Phillies this season? The short answer is not much. The Phillies ended up allowing 66 more runs in 2019 as opposed to the season before. While it would be a fool’s errand to blame Realmuto for the regression of the Phillies' pitching staff, it’s worth pointing out that Realmuto’s defense, or any player’s defense for that matter, is not as valuable as is conventionally believed.
Effective pitching prevents runs. Everything else is window dressing.
In all actuality, Realmuto’s position should count as a reason for being cautious about signing him to a long-term, big-money deal. The physical rigors associated with catching are a reason to think Realmuto’s production will decline within the body of this deal, which would likely begin with his age-30 season in 2020. Not to mention that if the Phillies are able to work Realmuto down to the 110 starts in a season that Gabe Kapler mentioned as a desired target prior to his firing, that’s 45 to 50 starts Realmuto isn’t giving you that a position player theoretically could.
"The Phillies can't afford to lose Realmuto"
This argument basically revolves around two main points:
1. The Phillies traded their top pitching prospect and an everyday player for Realmuto. It would be foolish to lose him for nothing after that.
2. The Phillies currently don’t have enough good players to be World Series contenders. You cannot allow one already here to leave.
The first point is an easy one to counter. Past decisions should not dictate future ones. If signing Realmuto to a deal at a certain price point is not what’s best for the organization moving forward, it should not matter what it took to acquire him.
As for the second point, signing Realmuto might preclude the Phillies from adding multiple good players in the future. Would the Phillies be better served utilizing a much smaller portion of the $112 million theoretically pegged for Realmuto to sign a middle tier catcher, a la Travis d’Arnaud, then trade Realmuto for another piece or two while contributing the rest of the financial savings towards an elite pitcher like Stephen Strasburg or an elite hitter like Anthony Rendon? I’d argue yes.
More simply put, the Phillies have a lot of holes to fill and spending major money on a good, not great hitter currently in his prime seasons that’s already in-house will not change your championship timeline.
By all accounts, Realmuto is a good clubhouse figure. He’s certainly an all-star caliber talent. The Phillies should want to keep him. But there is a price where it make sense and a price where it does not. They have to be very careful about knowing that line.