Implicit in the idea of re-signing J.T. Realmuto is the thought that you can make the playoffs and/or contend during his remaining prime years.
Yet with every addition the Mets and Braves make to their already strong rosters, that thought becomes less realistic for the Phillies from a short-term perspective.
Realmuto turns 30 in March. All along, he has been expected to receive a deal of at least four or five years that would take him into his mid-30s. A team shouldn’t reasonably expect elite production from Realmuto at age-34 or age-35, but three very good years during a five-year deal might be enough for the contract to be considered worthwhile.
Keep in mind that Realmuto’s value is based on his all-around skill set and athleticism, which won’t last forever. Will he, at age 33, still be the fastest catcher on the basepaths? Will he be as prolific defensively? With less speed, will he be able to maintain a batting average in the .275 range — which matters given his low walk rate? The answer to all three questions may indeed be yes, but a team has to factor all of it into its offer to the current best catcher in baseball.
The Phillies, as of today, face a tough road to the playoffs and not just in 2021. They do not have a better roster than the Braves or Mets, teams with a mix of veterans and young studs that will keep them afloat for several years. The Phils might also be behind the Nationals, depending on how much else Washington does this offseason and whether it replaces Max Scherzer next winter with another star.
In a normal, pre-2020 playoff format, the Phillies would be a longshot. If they resided in the NL Central, where no team has yet signed a player to a $1 million contract this offseason and at least three are cutting costs, they’d be in better shape.
Their best chance of making the playoffs over the next three years — with or without Realmuto — would rely on the playoff format changing again. Just like it hasn’t yet been decided whether the designated hitter will be universal in 2021, it hasn’t yet been decided how many teams will make the playoffs.
In the abbreviated 2020 season, 16 teams made it. There were eight playoff teams from each league — the teams with the top two records in each division, plus the teams in each league with the next-two-best records.
It does not seem like MLB will stick with 16 playoff teams moving forward, but the number in 2021 could be 14. The New York Post reported in mid-December that MLB is nearing an agreement to make the (currently non-existent) first round of the playoffs exclusive to ESPN. The league and players’ association would have to agree to expand the playoffs, though.
There was a separate report earlier this offseason that the league was considering offering the universal DH in exchange for playoff expansion but the players felt it wasn’t a fair enough trade. The players will want a larger piece of the playoff pie.
A format that seems to have gained steam for 2022 is a 14-team field, with seven in each league, the top seed receiving a first-round bye, and the 2- and 3-seeds granted the ability to pick their first-round opponent. There would be six Best of 3 first-round series. It’s possible this system could be adopted in time for 2021.
As laid out in the Post:
“In this format, there is a great benefit to finishing with the best record in a league and avoiding the first round, so teams will keep playing hard to the end to get that. There are great advantages to winning a division because you get to play that first round exclusively at home and pick your opponent. And there is an advantage to having the top wild-card record because you get the first round at home. Also, there would be no more tiebreaker 163rd games. To make the regular season more meaningful, the team that won the season series against its opponent would benefit, whether that is to have the top seed or to simply be the final wild card. Thus, if two teams finish as the fourth wild card and both have 84 wins, the team that won the season series will get into the playoffs.”
That system would add plenty of importance to the regular season, which deserves more importance given its length. It always feels off that a team can go 97-65, get a modest home-field advantage and have its season ended in a couple of days.
In a 14-team playoff field, the Phillies would have a chance as a 7-seed, along with teams like the Nationals, Giants and maybe a team or two from the NL Central. In a regular 10-team playoff field, the Phillies would have a much smaller chance because they’d need to finish with a better record than one of the Braves, Mets, Dodgers or Padres. Good luck with that.
The way the free-agent and trade markets have played out, the Phillies could end up bringing Realmuto back after all. And while 2021 would not make or break such a deal, the Phillies would have to commit themselves to continue adding and improving to realistically contend in 2022 and 2023. Otherwise, what’s the point?