J.T. Realmuto says Phillies have 'underperformed' — and he's ready to do something about it

J.T. Realmuto says Phillies have 'underperformed' — and he's ready to do something about it

J.T. Realmuto claims he did not hear general manager Matt Klentak’s post-trade deadline commentary about the Phillies needing their stars to be stars if the team was going to make a run at a playoff berth.

But Realmuto agrees with the idea.

“Yeah, absolutely, man,” the Phillies catcher said after leading a 10-2 win over the San Francisco Giants on Thursday (see observations).

“We feel like we've underperformed to this point in the season collectively as a team. We've had guys that have had stretches that were really good, but we haven't really clicked all together at the same time yet. We feel like we have the guys in this clubhouse to get it done. We just have to come together and play well together and get things rolling.”

Klentak made only modest additions to the team in the days leading up to Wednesday’s deadline.

“For this team to accomplish what it wants to accomplish, we're going to need the stars in that room to carry us,” he said moments after the deadline. “We have the talent. We had a very splashy offseason. We brought in a lot of talent and those guys are going to have to do what they do to push us into October.”

Realmuto was one of the splashy stars that Klentak added in the offseason. He was good enough to represent the Phillies in the All-Star Game last month, but even he would tell you he was capable of more than he delivered in the first half of the season. He might have been guilty of trying too hard — pressing — with a new team.

Lately, Realmuto has come alive at the plate. He is 9 for 20 over the last five games. Three of those hits are homers and two are doubles. He hit one of each, and added a single, to lead Thursday’s win over the Giants. The home run was a three-run shot to dead center in the fourth inning.

“One of the things that stands out to me is what Matt said yesterday,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “If we're going to be the team that we expect to be, our stars are going to carry us. J.T. is one of our stars. So we're certainly depending on that power stroke coming through like it did today.”

The Phillies’ inconsistent offense had a dozen hits, five for extra bases.

“That was big for us offensively as a group,” Realmuto said. “We had really good at-bats all day long. It's nice for us to get a little lead, a nice substantial lead for once. That was huge for our offense today."

Realmuto said he was driving the ball better recently. At first, he said there was no particular reason for that. But actually, there is.

“I'm honestly just trying to do less up there, not trying to do too much, get better pitches to hit, try not to chase out of the zone,” he said. “For me, when I get in trouble is when I go up there and try to do too much, try to hit for power. When I just let it come to me and feel a little more relaxed at the plate, it works out better for me.”

Cesar Hernandez also homered and added a two-run double. Roman Quinn belted a homer and Scott Kingery had three singles and two RBIs to show signs of coming alive at the plate.

The Phillies, who entered the day a half-game out of the second wild-card spot, took two of three from the Giants. The series win was the Phillies’ first against a team with a winning record in two months. The Phils took two of three from the San Diego Padres from June 3-5. The Padres entered that series with a winning record.

There was an area of concern in the game, however. Starting pitcher Jake Arrieta did not get an out in the fifth inning in a game that the Phils led 9-0 with him on the mound. Arrieta is pitching with a bone spur in his elbow and it began bothering him in the fourth inning.

“I was in a pretty tough spot in the bottom of the fourth before the top of the fifth,” he said. “It was basically hitter to hitter at that point.”

Arrieta spent time between innings working with an athletic trainer on some stretching exercises to create relief in the elbow.

The right-hander has averaged just 4 2/3 innings in his last five starts. Vince Velasquez is another pitcher on the staff who has trouble getting by the middle innings. Those two could eventually tax the bullpen.

“It's certainly our responsibility — and my responsibility specifically — to plan effectively for that,” Kapler said. “That's exactly what we'll do."

Arrieta said he has no plans to shut down. He wants to give the team whatever he has. The Phils recently sent starters Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin to the bullpen. They are capable of giving the team innings behind Arrieta.

On Friday night, the Phillies will unveil veteran lefty Jason Vargas against the Chicago White Sox. Vargas was acquired from the Mets on Monday night. The White Sox have lost four in a row, three in a sweep by the streaking (seven wins in a row) Mets, to fall to 46-60. The schedule maker is being kind to the Phils. They must take advantage.

“Hopefully we can take some momentum into the next couple series, win a few in a row and get rolling,” Realmuto said.

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Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “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.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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