Phillies managing partner John Middleton had a surprisingly revealing answer Saturday when asked about the J.T. Realmuto-Sixto Sanchez trade, saying that he wanted to make it only if his baseball people were sure they could extend Realmuto.
That hasn't happened yet. The Phillies are trudging toward an expensive free-agent battle to keep Realmuto, and the GM who acquired him, Matt Klentak, is now out of the job.
Sanchez, meanwhile, pitched five scoreless innings to lead the Marlins past the Cubs in the first round of the playoffs after an impressive rookie season. He looks like a top-of-the-rotation arm with velocity, command and two plus offspeed pitches. The Phillies get to face him a few times per year for the foreseeable future.
"The fact of the matter is, at the time it was being considered, my position was, I'd be willing to trade Sixto as long as you extend J.T. And if you don't extend J.T., I wouldn't trade Sixto," Middleton said at the press conference to discuss Klentak's stepping down. "Because we weren't at a point in the development of the team where the benefits that we were getting matched what we were giving up."
It was widely assumed when the Phillies traded for Realmuto that they would extend him. You simply don't give up a pitching prospect of Sanchez's caliber for two years of a veteran if you're as far away from real contention as the Phillies were (and still are). That assumption colored all analysis of the trade. Had it been known then that Realmuto would reach free agency, the risk/reward would have tipped away from the Phillies.
There are legitimate and unpredictable reasons why Realmuto is still unsigned. The most important one is the COVID-19 pandemic which shut baseball down for four months and rid the game of billions of dollars. The Phillies were in negotiations with Realmuto when the baseball world (and roster moves) froze. When things resumed, Realmuto was facing a two-month season ahead of free agency. Why not just let it play out and negotiate on the open market? A two-month season is a lot different than a six-month grind.
In discussing the Realmuto trade Saturday, Middleton revisited the Phillies' deal a decade earlier with Cleveland for Cliff Lee.
"To give you a completely similar kind of trade but in an entirely different set of circumstances: When (GM Ruben Amaro Jr.) traded for Cliff Lee in 2009, he traded away a bunch of guys, and very importantly Carlos Carrasco, for Cliff, who had basically had a year and a half on his deal," Middleton said.
"When (former Phillies president David Montgomery), Ruben and I sat down and talked about it, we all independently came to the conclusion that we're the defending World Series champions. We're pretty much the best team in the National League, the Dodgers are the only other one that could maybe lay claim to that but we felt we were better.
"... We looked at the situation and said, look, if we can get this guy, one of the great pitchers in baseball, it not only gives us a much, much better chance of winning the pennant and getting back to the World Series, it gives us a much better chance of winning the World Series. So we're going to give up these players because we are in win-now mode and this guy is a huge difference-maker.
"But at that point, when we traded for J.T., we weren't the defending World Series champions. We were trying to get back to the playoffs. The point I made is, we need J.T. now but we really need J.T. in three, four, five, six years from now and if all we get for him is two years, that's not the same thing as two years of Cliff Lee in 2009.
"And so, that was my position. He's a great player but we gave up a great player. To me, we just needed to hold fast and be firm and not give up Sixto for just two years at that moment in our time. We were a little early in the development to make that kind of a play."
They were, but that was the play Klentak made. Luring Bryce Harper to Philly certainly played a role in it. But as excited as Harper was to join forces with Realmuto is as disappointed as he (and the entire Phillies fanbase) will be if the catcher walks.
The evaluation of that Realmuto-for-Sixto trade will change if the Phillies can't keep Realmuto. More importantly, so will their roster. There is no replacing Realmuto's all-around production. The 2021 Phillies would be looking at downgrading from the best catcher in baseball to something like a Kurt Suzuki-Andrew Knapp tandem.
Middleton is already distancing himself from that deal with the Marlins in February 2019.
"The baseball people thought they could get the extension," he said. "One of the problems I have — I think most owners have — is we're not baseball people. We're not scouts for three or four years, we don't then go into the farm system for three or four years because that's really the way you learn a business.
"There's a bit of diffidence because you look at these decisions and you're talking about evaluations on things you don't really have grounding in. How do I evaluate a player? What's my basis to say this player is going to develop well or not develop well? So you tend to, and I did this, I tend to listen to the 'baseball people.' You let them guide you because that's what you pay them for.
"But that experience is exactly why a year ago when we were sitting in the press conference room talking about Gabe (Kapler) and why I was stepping in to make the decision, it was because I just decided, you know what, if I feel strongly about something that I think is important, I'm not going to let this slide again. I'm not going to just defer to other people. So you live and you learn. That experience on that trade, you have to learn from what you do in the past and that's shaped me going forward."