Phillies

J.T. Realmuto has been awesome and we haven't even seen the best of him yet

J.T. Realmuto has been awesome and we haven't even seen the best of him yet

We didn't see it play out on Monday because Joe Maddon gave Willson Contreras a rare night off, but the two best catchers in baseball currently are in this Phillies-Cubs series.

Contreras is off to an MVP-caliber start, hitting .321/.426/.627 with 11 home runs and 29 RBI through 162 plate appearances. He has already exceeded last year's home run total, and he's reaching base at one of the best clips in baseball.

Behind the plate, Contreras has nabbed 8 of 18 base stealers, a 44 percent success rate that is well above the MLB average of 28 percent.

Then there's J.T. Realmuto, who has been the key figure in Phillies wins two games in a row. On Sunday, he hit a two-run home run as a pinch-hitter to tie the game against the Rockies three batters before Bryce Harper's longball put the Phils ahead for good.

And then on Monday night at Wrigley Field, Realmuto drove in a run with a sharp single up the middle before hitting the game-winning home run in extra innings.

Realmuto is hitting .277/.333/.453 this season with 10 doubles, six homers and 29 RBI in 177 plate appearances. He has started 39 of the Phillies' 47 games, a pace that would result in 134 starts, nine more than his career high.

Last week, I noted here that Realmuto had provided the Phillies with everything except home-run power. He had hit for average, been money with runners in scoring position (.311), ran the bases better than any catcher, thrown out more base-stealers than any catcher, blocked well and been a calming, beneficial presence for Phils pitchers.

Then, after a three-week stretch without a homer, Realmuto went deep two games in a row. He has nine extra-base hits in his last 70 at-bats.

Gabe Kapler mentioned last week, before the two home runs, that he could sense Realmuto was on the brink of breaking out in a powerful way based on his hard contact. Realmuto was squaring the ball up, going up the middle regularly, hitting low line drives that could have been extra-base hits with a higher trajectory. Now, we're seeing that prediction play out.

Realmuto is not the type of hitter who tries to hit home runs. He just tries to make solid contact and when he squares it up with a bat path conducive to a home run, the ball can fly out. It's similar to the way Jean Segura hits his home runs.

Realmuto has a hard contact rate of 44 percent, well above the league average of 37 percent. It is also by far his best-ever hard contact rate, well ahead of his career rate of 33 percent.

The Phillies are getting what they paid for via trade. They're probably getting more than they paid for. This offense wouldn't be nearly as diverse without Realmuto's run-producing capabilities in the five-hole or his solid contact skills in high-leverage situations.

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Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Good thing the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did.

Stephen Strasburg, who entered the offseason as the No. 2 starting pitcher in free agency behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Wheeler, is returning to the Nationals on a massive seven-year, $245 million contract, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

As historically good as Strasburg was in October, that is an insane number for him. He will turn 32 midway through the first of the seven years. He has made 30 starts in just three of nine seasons and reached 200 innings twice. He was more durable than ever in 2019 and, boy, did he cash in because of it. 

Two seasons ago, in 2018, Strasburg made 22 starts with a 3.74 ERA. Had he had that type of season in 2019, he probably wouldn't have even opted out of the remaining three years and $75 million to find this next payday.

Good for him. But also good for the Phillies in agreeing with Wheeler five days before the Nats retained Strasburg. Because if Wheeler was still on the board today, that number is at least $20 million higher and maybe more. Would a team go to $140 million for Wheeler? What about $160 million? Think about how many free agents the White Sox have struck out on in recent years. Wouldn't they have been likely to up their offer one more time if Wheeler was still out there to see what Strasburg signed for?

Strasburg is a great pitcher, don't get it twisted. He proved in 2019 that he can be the most reliable and important arm in the league when the pressure is at its peak. But forget Year 6, by Year 3 or 4 of this deal, the Nationals could be regretting it mightily.

And if this is what it took to sign Strasburg, Gerrit Cole is even more likely to approach $300 million.

There has been much more offseason activity leaguewide than there was at this point a year ago. The five best remaining free agents are Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next three would be Nick Castellanos, Didi Gregorius, Marcell Ozuna and then you're getting into back-end-rotation types.

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How close are Phillies to luxury tax threshold after Zack Wheeler signing?

How close are Phillies to luxury tax threshold after Zack Wheeler signing?

The Phillies, after signing Zack Wheeler for $118 million over five years, are approximately $20 million below MLB's luxury tax threshold for the 2020 season.

John Middleton was asked at a news conference six weeks ago about his willingness to exceed the $208 million tax, which for a first-time offender like the Phillies would result in a 20 percent penalty for every dollar they are over $208M.

This is what the Phils' managing partner said:

Here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team. 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.”

The 2020 Phillies are not one piece away from seriously contending for a World Series. Even after the Wheeler splash, they still need at least one more strong regular in the lineup, at least one starting pitcher, a couple semi-reliable relief arms and a more competent bench. The strength of the Nationals and Braves also complicates things.

Suffice it to say, this does not sound like the situation Middleton described above.

That does not mean, however, that the Phillies' front office is treating the tax threshold like a hard cap. If the right opportunity presents itself, they will pounce. If the expected dollar figure for Anthony Rendon somehow doesn't materialize, the Phillies wouldn't pass up a great deal for a great fit just to stay under in 2020.

They're just going to be logical about it. There is reason to leave flexibility for midseason when you have a better idea of how close you are to contending for a division title. Why overpay a middling reliever or starter now when you can potentially acquire a difference-making one in July? 

This is a key season coming up for the Phillies. After 2020, they free up $38 million as the contracts of Jake Arrieta and David Robertson expire. That's money that can be reallocated to a very good starting pitcher and a very good everyday player. Right now, those two contracts are hindrances. Robertson is unlikely to contribute in 2020 and the Phillies desperately need Arrieta to be better than a No. 4.

The Phillies' proximity to that $208 million luxury tax threshold helps explain why they didn't beat the Braves' one-year, $18 million offer to Cole Hamels. As nice as a reunion with Hamels would have been, they could probably replicate his production for half the money or maybe a little more with someone like Wade Miley or Rick Porcello.

The Phillies won't close the door on any free agent, but don't be shocked if their splashiest move came before the Winter Meetings even began.

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