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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Phillies pitching prospect Zach Warren has a dirty car but a bright future

Phillies pitching prospect Zach Warren has a dirty car but a bright future

Every one of the 15 minor-league prospects that the Phillies have invited to big-league spring training camp has a story.

Zach Warren’s is unique because (in his heart) he was a Phillie before he was technically a Phillie.

Warren grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, in the “glory era,” as he correctly called it, when the Phillies were racking up National League East titles, going to two World Series and winning one of them. Young Zach rooted for Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but his eye always drifted toward the work being done by Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, not surprising because Warren was a left-handed pitcher on the rise in those days.

After successful runs at St. Augustine Prep in South Jersey and the University of Tennessee, Warren is still a pitcher on the rise. Three strong seasons in the Phillies’ minor-league system earned him an invite to major-league spring training camp next month in Clearwater.

At the Phillies’ prospect-education seminar last week at Citizens Bank Park, Warren recalled the pinch-me moment when he got the phone call from Josh Bonifay, the Phillies director of player development, telling him he’d been invited to big-league camp, and following up that thrilling news with a phone call to his dad, Geoff.

“I had dropped off my car to be worked on in Vineland the day before,” Zach recalled with a laugh, “and my dad was a little unhappy because it was dirty and had no gas. I told him the news and that cheered him up.”

Warren, 23, is one of a handful of left-handed relievers coming to big-league camp on non-roster invites. Most, if not all, will open the season in the minor leagues, but team officials, including new manager Joe Girardi and new pitching coach Bryan Price, clearly want to get a look at what they have for future reference. The Phillies, under general manager Matt Klentak, have been aggressive running relievers in and out from the minors so it’s likely several of these relievers will get a shot in the majors this season. And if they throw strikes and get outs – well, they’ll stick around.

Warren, 6-5 and 200 pounds, was selected in the 14th round of the 2017 draft. He features a mid-90s fastball, a slider and a changeup. He has racked up double-digit strikeouts-per-nine innings in each of his three pro seasons. He spent the last two seasons working late in the game, including closer, at Lakewood and Clearwater. In 116 2/3 innings the last two seasons, he allowed just 76 hits and 34 earned runs (2.62 ERA) while striking out 180 and walking 66.

The 2020 season will be a prove-it one for Warren. He projects to make the jump to Double A Reading and be an important part of that club’s bullpen. Double A is the level where they separate the men from the boys. Have success at the level and you can rise quickly to the majors.

“I’m not thinking too far in advance, where I’m going to be and things like that,” said Warren, showing a healthy perspective. “All I can control is working on what I need to work on to get better and becoming the best player I can be. My ideal blueprint for this season is to make strides and get better and help my team win games and get to the playoffs.”

First-timers in big-league camp are like sponges. They soak up the experience and try to learn from the players who’ve walked the miles they hope to one day walk. Warren has a healthy respect for Adam Morgan, another lefty reliever and SEC product from the University of Alabama, and is eager to speak with him.

“I want to learn from Adam Morgan,” Warren said. “He was up as a starter and had to go to the minors to learn, adapt and change, and he developed and got back. I think there’s a ton I could learn from someone like that.

“I’m just looking forward to learning from everybody. I think it’s going to be a great experience and I can’t wait to get down there and get going.”

With a clean car and a full tank of gas, of course.


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Brian Dawkins schools Phillies prospects on how to handle boos

Brian Dawkins schools Phillies prospects on how to handle boos

A group of Phillies prospects was in town this week for the organization’s annual prospects education seminar.

One of those lessons came from a legend.

Brian Dawkins, the most motivational athlete this city has ever seen, shared with the group his thoughts on playing in Philadelphia and responding to the passionate fan base.

“Playing in Philadelphia is different,” Dawkins said. “If you get on the field, there is a 99.99 percent chance you will be booed. The thing I always knew though was that you may boo me that one time but I’m not gonna make the same mistake again.”

The group included Alec Bohm, the Phillies’ top offensive prospect, and Cristopher Sanchez, a pitching prospect with a 100 mph arm profiled here by Jim Salisbury.

Check out the video here if you’re seeking some extra juice at the gym or just want to see Weapon X drop some jewels.

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