For the Philadelphia Phillies, there was no path to a successful offseason that included letting J.T. Realmuto sign elsewhere.
For starters, the division rival New York Mets and Nationals went into the winter looking like potential suitors for the two-time Silver Slugger. The Atlanta Braves reportedly jumped in on the bidding war as well, trying to lure Realmuto with a short-term, high-salary deal.
Then there were the Phillies themselves. Philadelphia’s lineup, down its cleanup hitter, lacked protection for Bryce Harper outside of streaky first baseman Rhys Hoskins and 2020 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Alec Bohm. With a historically bad bullpen and rotation that lacked reliable options beyond Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies couldn’t afford to take a step back offensively, too.
As if that weren’t enough, the team’s biggest and highest-paid star was publicly lobbying for the Phillies to re-sign Realmuto. Harper wore T-shirts, posted on Instagram and made subtle comments to the media in an effort to convince Philadelphia brass to make retaining Realmuto a priority.
In the end, the Phillies did exactly that. They reportedly signed Realmuto to a five-year, $115.5 million deal Tuesday that gives him the largest free-agent contract ever for a catcher. His $23.1 average annual value marks a new record for a catcher as well, though he does fall short of Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million extension for the honor of largest catcher contract in MLB history.
So, Harper is happy, the lineup got its cleanup hitter back and Realmuto won’t be suiting up for any of the Phillies’ divisional foes. That’s great, but it doesn’t bring Philadelphia all that closer to competing. Even with Realmuto in hand, FanGraphs projects the Phillies’ roster to accrue just 29.7 WAR, fourth in the NL East behind the Nationals (33.6), Braves (35.2) and Mets (40.9).
It’s unclear where the Phillies go from here.
Reports coming out of Philadelphia earlier this offseason indicated owner John Middleton wanted to cut payroll due to losses stemming from the pandemic. However, newly hired president Dave Dombrowski has a reputation for spending big on free agents to construct a winning club. A compromise exists: The slow-moving free agent market flooded with more players than available jobs could allow the Phillies to pluck a few names for cheap and hope a few things break their way in 2021.
“I consider it a retool, not a rebuild, for sure,” Dombrowski said of the Phillies’ plans after being hired in December, as quoted by NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I think there are too many good players on the club...we have a star player in right field in Bryce and some other good players around him. Any time you have three good starting pitchers like we have at the top of the rotation, you're in pretty good shape to be competitive. Now, there are things I think that need to be done. But when you talk about Nola, Wheeler and [Zach] Eflin, that's a good place to start, so I think it's a retool.”
Yet the list of roster holes is long for the Phillies. In addition to Realmuto, they also saw Didi Gregorius, Jay Bruce, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter hit free agency this offseason. Scott Kingery isn’t proving to be the long-term answer at second base, Roman Quinn (.669 career OPS) is the projected center fielder and Vince Velasquez hasn’t shown much consistency. Oh yeah, both Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura are free agents after this year as well.
Dombrowski replaced Hunter with right-hander Archie Bradley and Andrelton Simmons was the reported favorite to replace Gregorius at shortstop before he reportedly agreed to a deal with the Twins Tuesday night. But Bradley represented the Phillies’ lone significant addition of the winter before inking Realmuto. The farm system, which struggled to produce impact players after the Phillies’ rebuild, is devoid of top-100 talent outside rookie starter Spencer Howard and a pair of players who haven’t played a game above Single-A.
Realmuto is back, and that’s nothing but a positive for Philadelphia. Middleton, Dombrowski and the entire Phillies organization deserve credit for keeping their prized catcher in town.
The question now is what comes next. There are no clear answers.