It shouldn't take the Yankees for Citizens Bank Park to fill up like this

It shouldn't take the Yankees for Citizens Bank Park to fill up like this

The atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park Monday night against the Yankees was reminiscent of the Phils' Golden Era from 2007-11 when the ballpark was alive every night providing extra juice for the players.

Unfortunately, not all of the 44,136 fans at CBP for the series opener were providing that juice for the Phillies. It was more like half of them.

Citizens Bank Park was about as filled with Yankees fans as Nationals Park used to be with Phillies fans when the Phils were atop the NL East and the Nats were cellar-dwellers. Just walking through the concourse, there were as many Aaron Judge jerseys as there were Aaron Nolas. 

Exiting the stadium in the second inning after Phillies Pregame Live, there was a loud, raucous cheer. I figured it was either a great defensive play by the Phils or their first run. It wasn't. It was the reaction to Gleyber Torres' RBI double.

This was the biggest crowd the Phillies have had in a non-home-opener since September 2013. It was the first time they've drawn 40,000 fans in a non-home-opener since July 2, 2016 against the Royals — a Saturday night on July 4 weekend with a fireworks show.

The Phillies, despite entering Monday night with MLB's 10th-best record, rank 19th in attendance this season with an average of 24,713 per home game. They've filled just 56.6 percent of seats.

Interestingly, the number isn't all that much higher than it was last season, when at this point the Phillies were 27 games under .500. They averaged just 600 fewer fans per game last season.

It may come down to the majority of the city just not yet buying into this team. The Phillies are 41-35 but they've had some horrible, demoralizing losses at key times. Opening day after Gabe Kapler pulled Nola. May 6 in D.C. when Hector Neris' meltdown cost the Phils a series win. Sunday night on national TV, when the Phils couldn't hold onto a 6-2 lead. Those kinds of games count as only one loss each in the standings but from a fan's perspective, they can be signals of a team being a pretender.

It also could be that the majority of casual fans aren't being drawn to the ballpark by any particular player. Nola has been great for a calendar year, but do his 7-inning, 2-run outings bring out the fans? Odubel Herrera's approval rating isn't as high as it probably should be given his skill set. Rhys Hoskins is a difference-making offensive player, but until the team starts winning consistently he's not going to connect with the fan base the way that 2008 core did.

It will be interesting to see how this develops as the summer progresses. The "kids are in school" argument can no longer be used. 

If the Phillies hover in the wild-card race over the next three weeks and make an addition or two at the trade deadline, that could be the tipping point that gets some more fans to the park.

But even if they don't, this is a team that could sure use some additional fan support. Phillies fans claimed for years during the down period that they'd come back once the team was on the rise with young players and a legitimate plan was in place. Well, all of that is true now and the numbers haven't changed much.

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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