J.T. Realmuto and Phillies on the clock again with contract extension talks

J.T. Realmuto and Phillies on the clock again with contract extension talks

Major League Baseball will lift its moratorium on transactions, signings and negotiations at noon on Friday.

That makes it an important day in the Phillies' corner of the universe because the team can resume its attempt to sign All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension that would prevent him from becoming a free agent after this season.

Back in February, the Phillies beat Realmuto at the salary arbitration table. He will make $3.7 million for this 60-game shortened season, the prorate of his $10 million salary.

Once the arbitration process was over, Realmuto and the Phillies quickly turned their attention to negotiating a long-term contract extension that would kick in for the start of the 2021 season — Realmuto's age 30 season — and cover four, five, maybe even six seasons, depending on how the talks went.

Those talks had been underway when the game — and the business of the game — shut down on March 12 because of the coronavirus health crisis.

Prior to the talks shutting down, Realmuto and his agent, Jeff Berry, had made it no secret that the player was looking to raise the bar on catchers' salaries, both in arbitration and free agency.

Realmuto lost in arbitration but he's still looking to ride either his pending free-agent status or free agency itself to a win.

In terms of average annual value, former Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer, who played his last game in 2018, remains the king of catcher salaries at $23 million per season.

Realmuto is very aware of that number and so are the Phillies, who have indicated a willingness to be in that neighborhood to get a deal done.

But there are other applicable numbers.

Realmuto's side is very aware of the $23.6 million average salary that newcomer Zack Wheeler landed with the Phillies in a five-year deal.

Bryce Harper's $25.3 million average salary is probably also relevant because he's the face of the franchise and that comes with certain prestige like, perhaps, getting the biggest paycheck every two weeks.

Beyond Harper, there are other relevant numbers. Realmuto's camp has offered subtle clues that it considers Paul Goldschmidt's five-year, $130 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals to be a nice comparable. That deal carries an AAV of $26 million.

Who knows how this thing is going to go?

All we do know is that the Phillies want Realmuto and are willing to pay a lot for him.

But the shortened 2020 season complicates things.

With almost two-thirds of the season already wiped away, Realmuto is a lot closer to free agency than he was back in spring training, when the scheduled March 26 season opener loomed as a soft deadline for both sides. Maybe the shortened schedule will lead Realmuto to gamble that good health and top performance in a sprint of a season will lead to a bigger score on the open market.

Ah, but there is no guarantee that there will be a bigger score on the free-agent market. A shortened season with no fans in the stands will hurt the game's overall revenues and that could soften next winter's market.

So, there's a lot to think about. For both sides.

For now, it's safe to say that opening day — it'll be either July 23 or 24 — once again looms large for both sides. In that month's time, we'll learn a lot about where things stand between the Phillies and J.T. Realmuto.

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COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

The Phillies have four players on the COVID-19 injured list (Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez, Scott Kingery and Tommy Hunter) and three more who have yet to arrive in camp because of coronavirus protocols (Aaron Nola, Adam Haseley and Christian Bethancourt).

We’re already seeing how unsteady and unpredictable this 60-game season will be. Nola is the Phillies’ best starting pitcher and Neris is their best reliever. Kingery is their starting second baseman. Haseley was set to start or split time in center field. Suarez was in the race for the fifth starter’s job.

So much for the Phillies would change without them, and it’s reasonable to expect at least a few of them will miss time early in the season. Phillies lefty Cole Irvin said Saturday he thinks it could take pitchers up to six weeks to return from coronavirus because it would require two weeks of quarantine, then the resumption of throwing, then a few bullpen sessions. The severity of cases varies, but it looks like it will generally cost pitchers more time than position players.

The best hitter in the NL East, Freddie Freeman, is also dealing with COVID-19 and is not feeling well at all right now, according to his wife Chelsea. Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday "it will be a while 'til we can get him back." It totally changes the Braves’ equation and 2020 chances if their rock is missing for a third of the season.

Will Smith, Atlanta’s top-tier lefty reliever signed to a three-year, $39 million in the offseason, also tested positive. Then on Saturday, Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez opted out of the season, as did their first base coach Eric Young Sr. Four Marlins players tested positive as well.

Yankees All-Star infielder D.J. LeMahieu tested positive.  So did Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Twins slugger Miguel Sano, Padres outfielder Tommy Pham and Indians speedster Delino DeShields Jr. Last week, Charlie Blackmon tested positive. There are at least another dozen known or suspected cases around the league with more, surely, to come.

On Friday, Mike Trout said "Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable" about the season ahead with a pregnant wife.

On Saturday, Dodgers left-hander David Price opted out of the season because of health and family concerns, joining King Felix, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Leake and Joe Ross. Buster Posey is reportedly mulling the decision too.

Other than that ... decent first weekend of camp?

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Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

It has been widely assumed that Aaron Nola will make his third straight opening day start when the Phillies begin their shortened 2020 season later this month.

But now you have to wonder if things might be shaping up for Zack Wheeler to make that start.

Nola has not participated in either of the Phillies' first two workouts since training camp opened — re-opened might be a better way to put it — on Friday.

"He is not here yet," manager Joe Girardi said Saturday. "We're trying to work our way through that."

Nola is said to be working out, throwing, locally. It's unclear why he has not worked out with the club, though many things are unclear in the age of COVID-19. Girardi is prohibited from discussing anything related specifically to COVID-19.

Center fielder Adam Haseley has also missed the first two workouts. He is also said to be working out locally, away from the team.

Girardi did say Haseley's absence was "due to a medical condition. We're trying to work through it and get him here."

Ditto for non-roster catcher Christian Bethancourt, who, despite being absent from the 60-man player pool, is still part of the organization, according to Girardi.

Already, the Phillies are without pitchers Ranger Suarez, Tommy Hunter and Hector Neris and second baseman Scott Kingery. All are on a special COVID-19 injured list.

If you're keeping score at home, the Phillies have yet to see their potential opening day starting pitcher, their second baseman and their center fielder. That's not exactly good for the strength-up-the-middle philosophy. At least shortstop Didi Gregorius worked out for the first time Saturday. Catcher J.T. Realmuto is in camp and working out, as well.

Given that Nola has been throwing, it's still possible he could make the opening day start in three weeks. But if he's delayed much longer getting into camp, Wheeler could jump in. The right-hander threw to hitters on Saturday and his next outing could come in an intrasquad game, according to Girardi. That could put him considerably ahead of Nola.

"I thought he looked pretty good," Girardi said of Wheeler's work on Saturday. "I think in a lot of ways, pitchers might be ahead of where they would be in a normal spring training when it comes to the volume, but what they're missing is having a hitter in there and competing. 

"That's what our concern is about, being sharp and being able to get out of jams and those sorts of things. But I thought he looked pretty good today. His next outing, I'm not sure what it'll be, if it'll be another bullpen, a simulated game, or even an intrasquad but he should be able to go further as long as he wakes up and feels good."

It's not a given that Wheeler would be the opening day starter if Nola doesn't get enough time to prepare with the team. Wheeler's wife is due to give birth around the time of the July 23 or 24 opener. He will leave the team for a few days to be with his wife. But if the birth doesn't happen until a day or two after opening day, Wheeler could make that start then slip away to be with his family and possibly not even miss a start.

More will be known in the coming days. But Nola's status is certainly something to keep an eye on.

Meanwhile, another player, former American League Cy Young winner David Price of the Dodgers, opted out of his season on Saturday because of concerns about COVID-19.

Girardi is still confident the season will get off the ground.

Time will tell.

"I think there's a lot of concern and I think that's why we continue to educate as much as we can," he said. "We continue to test every other day, there's temperature checks a number of times during the day. 

"It's players being socially responsible to themselves, to the people around them, and to their teammates. If you have a symptom, don't just assume 'Ah, I have a headache today. It's normal,' or 'I'm sneezing more than normal today. It's my allergies.' You have to be completely honest in all of these questionnaires that we fill out or you jeopardize everyone in the room. It is a concern, yes."

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