J.T. Realmuto carries the ball for all catchers in groundbreaking arbitration case

J.T. Realmuto carries the ball for all catchers in groundbreaking arbitration case

Any way you slice it, Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto is headed for a historic contract in 2020.

Realmuto and the Phillies began the salary arbitration process with an exchange of proposals on Friday.

The Phillies filed at $10 million.

Realmuto’s camp came in at $12.4 million.

Barring a negotiated settlement, which industry observers see as unlikely, Realmuto will have his 2020 salary determined by an arbitration panel at a hearing in Arizona during the first two weeks of February.

The panel will listen to presentations/arguments from both sides and pick one number or the other. There is no middle ground in the final judgment, even though you could say the $11.2 million midpoint between the two submitted figures is important to the process. Realmuto’s representatives really only need to convince the panel that their client’s value is a little more than $11.2 million to win the case. Conversely, the Phillies only need to convince the panel that Realmuto’s value is a shade under $11.2 million to prevail. It's all based on service time, comparable players, performance, special accomplishment and other factors. An unofficial weekend poll of a handful of people in the industry came down strongly on Realmuto’s side.

But even if arbitrators side with the Phillies – and, by extension, the Commissioner’s office because that group plays a large role in placing values on players for management – Realmuto is headed for a historic one-year pay day for a catcher in his final year of arbitration.

Realmuto is in his third and final year of arbitration. To date, the highest paid catcher in that class was Matt Wieters, who avoided a hearing with Baltimore and made $8.275 million 2015. Catcher Mike Napoli actually made more -- $9.4 million – in a negotiated settlement with the Texas Rangers in 2012, but he was in his fourth year of arbitration because of his Super-Two status with the Anaheim Angels in 2009.

So, even if Realmuto loses his case with the Phillies, he will make $10 million, a record one-year pact for an arbitration-eligible catcher and a raise of $4.1 million from the $5.9 million he made in 2019.

And if he wins, he will be looking at a raise of $6.5 million.

Both of those raises would be record-setters for a third-time arbitration catcher, eclipsing the $2.7 million raise Miguel Montero received from Arizona in 2012. 

Realmuto, who will turn 29 in March, put himself in a strong negotiating position this winter by cementing his status as the best catcher in baseball in 2019. (By the way, that description is one Phillies officials use often.) Realmuto was an All-Star, he was the catcher on the inaugural All-MLB team, and he won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in the National League. He led all big-league catchers in hits, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits while swatting a career-high 25 homers. He threw out 37 runners trying to steal, the most in the majors.

Industry observers are watching Realmuto’s case with great interest because of the impact it could have on catchers’ salaries in the future. Catchers are generally not among the very highest paid position players in the game – Buster Posey, tops in average annual salary among catchers, ranks 30th overall in the majors -- and that grates on the players’ association. Even the best catchers require in-season rest and that affects games played and other metrics that can impact valuations in relation to other position players, particularly in the arbitration process. Also, the value of a catcher can be nuanced (See: leadership, game-calling), though new metrics for assigning values to them seem to emerge every year.  

The Phillies have not participated in an arbitration hearing since losing to Ryan Howard in 2008. Before that, it was 2001 when they beat Travis Lee. In recent years, the Phils have exchanged filings with Aaron Nola, Cesar Hernandez, Antonio Bastardo, Ben Revere and Hunter Pence, but all the cases were settled without a hearing. In Nola's case, the two sides were on the doorstep of a hearing last year when they struck a multi-year deal.

Though the Phils and Realmuto can continue to negotiate up until a hearing, this case is probably going to court because of the potential long-term impact it could have for labor. In Realmuto, the players’ association has a viable leavening agent for catcher salaries.

Realmuto is represented by Jeff Berry of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the same firm that represented Howard when he beat the Phils for $10 million in spring training 2008. Berry, a former minor league catcher, is known throughout the industry as a fighter and a passionate advocate for players. “Principled,” is how two people, one on the management side, one on the players’ side, described him in recent days.

Berry’s vocal outrage after Posey, a client of his, suffered a broken leg in a home-plate collision in 2011 helped lead to rules protecting defenseless catchers. In December 2018, amid a slow-moving free agent market, Berry authored a striking memo that called out management for its methods of setting player valuations and reminded players of the leverage they had while urging them to be unified and essentially fight back.

Clearly, Berry is not afraid to speak his mind and stand up for a cause. Catcher salaries might be his latest crusade and Realmuto is a well-equipped horse ready to ride for himself and others.

Realmuto’s arbitration case will play out as the Phillies simultaneously plan to make him a long-term contract offer that would kick in for the 2021 season – the arbitration deal would be for just 2020 – and prevent him from becoming a free agent. There has long been a perception/fear that arbitration hearings create bad blood between a player and a team and can ultimately damage the long-term relationship, but players are usually able to separate business and baseball. (See: Howard, who signed two extensions after his arbitration hearing.) Realmuto and Phillies management/ownership have an excellent relationship and both sides have publicly expressed a desire to extend it. 

In a hearing, the Phillies can say they offered Realmuto the largest third-year arbitration raise ever for a catcher – 69 percent is hardly a slight -- and Realmuto’s handlers can counter by saying he's an elite position player and worth the $12.4 million he seeks. 

And when it's all over sometime in the first two weeks of February, it'll be difficult to imagine the hearing standing in the way of a contract extension that should be worth $20 million or more per season over, say, five years. An offer in that range is expected to come from the Phillies during spring training. Then it becomes up to Realmuto whether he wants to stare down the risks (health, performance) of playing out his contract in 2020 for the possibility of even greater riches on the free-agent market.

It’s a complex matter. A fascinating matter. Phillies fans are watching. An industry is watching.

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