If one thing is for certain about the economic future of Major League Baseball, it’s that nothing is for certain. The league and its teams are in uncharted territory attempting to weather the fallout of a global pandemic that still has the potential to force the cancellation of the 2020 season.
One of the biggest question marks surrounds the outlook of the 2020-21 free agent class. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto is set to be one of the most highly sought-after players available, but he’s hoping that he doesn’t even make it there. The two-time All-Star has had talks with Philadelphia about working out an extension, though there’s been little traction the last few months.
“We were in the really preliminary stages [of negotiations] early on in spring training before the pandemic and we haven't really gone anywhere since then,” Realmuto said in a Zoom press conference Thursday per NBC Sports Philadelphia. “There's no frustration…I understand the business of baseball. I'm here to play baseball and focus on this team winning and getting to the playoffs.”
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak offered a similar sentiment when he was asked about Realmuto’s future during a press conference 10 days prior.
"The landscape that we left in March is different from the one we return to now. We just have to see how that manifests itself in our discussions. We still love the player. We'd still love to have him in red pinstripes for the long haul. But there’s a lot of uncertainty in the game right now on a variety of levels. We just need to play that out."
If Realmuto does end up available in free agency, the Nationals would be a fit for his services. The team will lose half of its catching tandem next offseason when Kurt Suzuki’s contract expires, leaving Yan Gomes and a slew of unproven and unheralded catching prospects like Raudy Read, Tres Barrera and Jakson Reetz behind.
Even though Gomes is owed $6 million in 2021 for the final year of his deal, his presence likely wouldn’t preclude Washington from going after Realmuto. In fact, the interest is already there. The Nationals attempted to trade for Realmuto during the 2018 season when he was still on the Marlins but backed off after Miami demanded a hefty package that included Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom in return.
Realmuto was instead shipped off to the Phillies in the same offseason former Nationals star Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million commitment to play in Philadelphia. If the Nationals want to return the favor and pry the Phillies’ star to their corner of the NL East, then they’re going to have to convince Realmuto to leave a franchise that he enjoys playing for behind—just like the Phillies did with Harper.
“My opinion of the organization has not changed one bit,” Realmuto said on the Zoom call. “I love this organization. They've been great to me and my family since I showed up. From top to bottom, they're just good people and they care about baseball, and that's really important to me.”
Among those who want to keep Harper in Philadelphia the most is Harper himself. The star outfielder yelled, “Sign him” into an empty Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday after Realmuto hit a home run during an intrasquad game.
The biggest factor that would determine the Nationals’ level interest will likely be the money. Realmuto is expected to negotiate with the goal of resetting the catcher market. Given that the record for the highest annual salary for a catcher is $23 million set by Joe Mauer in 2010, the price tag won’t be cheap.
Washington will also have future contract obligations for its own stars to consider. Max Scherzer is a free agent after the 2021 season and Trea Turner will be so as well the following year. And even though they’re still young, Juan Soto and Victor Robles loom as potential extension candidates with only room to further raise their value.
Of course, this is all depending on the state of the league’s finances. Even though the season still has yet to begin, free agency is only four months away. Teams are bracing for significant losses this year even if the season goes on as planned. If Realmuto does hope to land a record contract, then he will be counting on teams deciding they’re able to afford a player of his caliber without most of their 2020 revenue in the bank.
“It definitely concerns me,” Realmuto said of his outlook on free agency. “Necessarily not for myself, but it does concern me for the free-agency class as a whole. I mentioned a few months back that the top guys usually find a way to get their dollars. Teams are going to want them, you know. Maybe if it's not 20 teams that are in on you, now there'll be five to 10.
“I just think that a lot of teams will be able to look at this as a time to take advantage and actually go for it instead of backing off. As half the league will probably be trying to cut revenue and save some money and the other ones will look at it as an advantage to maybe go forward and press forward. I think that it could affect free agency as a whole, but for myself, I'm not really too worried about it.”
Realmuto could end up signing a one-year deal and waiting until more teams have recovered financially before pushing for a long-term contract. However, he would then face the uncertainty of the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring. Following an ugly and public back-and-forth affair between MLB and the players union over the financial structure of a 2020 season, a lockout remains a very real possibility.
There are many different ways these next few months could go for Realmuto. If he struggles during the short sample of 60 games that the 2020 season is set to provide, it likely won’t impact his value too much. But even if he goes roaring into next winter, it’s still not clear whether teams will be willing or able to pay him what he’s looking for.
That includes the Nationals, who have a lot of factors to consider but probably wouldn’t mind stealing one of Harper’s favorite teammates away from their division rival.
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