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September 22, 2020

Forget everything else, J.T. Realmuto debacle should be enough to get Matt Klentak fired

If fans aren't prepared to lose the best catcher in baseball, they better get there.

There's something to be said about lame-duck leaders making big decisions about the future of the enterprise they're about to be leaving: they shouldn't.

But that's almost the situation the Phillies find themselves in, as general manager Matt Klentak isn't quite a lame duck just yet, but is very much on the hot seat and can likely only be saved by a deep postseason run the team he constructed doesn't seem capable of making. If that scenario plays out, he'll very likely be gone next season.

On Monday, Klentak was asked if he felt his team needed to make the playoffs in order for him to be back for another season as his team clings to the final National League wild card spot by a half game despite the expanded postseason format. As expected, he danced around the question and said to check back with him after the season is over.

"I think right now our focus is on the next seven games, and if we take care of business in the next seven games, I think then we can start looking forward to hopefully would be an exciting October," Klentak told reporters. "We can talk about it after the season is over, we can look back and kind of go through the post-mortem."

The only problem with that? J.T. Realmuto, the best catcher in baseball and pending free agent, might be gone by then after Klentak failed so far to get a deal done.

That would be a bad look for the Phillies, not just because they let a top player walk in his prime, but because of what they gave up to get Realmuto: top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, who has been lighting it up since getting called up by the Marlins earlier this season. Does that put any extra pressure on the Phillies front office to re-sign Realmuto, who is slashing .267/.357/.527 this season with 11 home runs and 30 RBI, knowing that it cost them one of the best young pitchers in baseball?

It should, but the way Klentak answered the question makes it sound like this team is already preparing to say goodbye to the best catcher in baseball next week.

“What I’ve said all along is we would love to have J.T. here,” Klentak said prior to the Phillies loss to the Nationals on Monday night. “But when you make that trade, you’re trading for two years of control and you know that. Sixto looked really good against us. He’s looked good this year. But we’ve had two very productive years of J.T. as well.”

Sure, the Phillies got two good years out of Realmuto, who could return from a hip injury against the Nationals on Tuesday, but did it actually bring about any substantial change? 

They're 108-108 since acquiring the 29-year-old catcher and could miss the playoffs for the ninth straight year. All it cost them was years of control of a potential ace that would be the perfect complement to Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler atop the Phillies rotation. That's the kind of trade you make when you're one player away from contending for a title, not when you're simply trying to remember what October baseball feels like. 

The decision to re-sign Realmuto isn't Klentak's alone. He'll be getting input from Andy MacPhail, who also should be shown the exit after this season comes to an end, and John Middleton, the man who controls both the pursestrings and the futures of the Phillies top two decision makers. And then there's Realmuto himself, who has been mum on his contract situation this season but appears ready to test the open market, where there will be plenty of suitors awaiting the opportunity to bid on his services.  

And one of them might be in the Phillies own division. 

With new ownership in New York, the Mets could be looking to make a splash this offseason. And signing Realmuto would certainly qualify as that, especially if they break the bank to do so. GM Brodie Van Wagenen has been hot on the two-time All Star for some time now, and as Ken Davidoff wrote in the New York Post last week, new owner Steve Cohen wouldn't even break a sweat signing Realmuto to a record deal for a catcher, something the Phillies seem unable to or unwilling to do at this point. 

Joe Mauer set the bar for catchers over 10 years ago when he signed an eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins, bypassing free agency. Realmuto easily will beat that annual average value of $23 million and is a decent bet to surpass the total package, perhaps for fewer than eight years.

Obvious red lights exist when you look at how catchers have aged in the drug-testing era. Mauer stopped catching in his age-31 season, the fourth year of his contract, due to concussions. Buster Posey, whom the Giants signed to an eight-year, $159 million extension in 2013 (Van Wagenen was his agent), slipped after his age-30 season in 2017, as did Cardinals icon Yadier Molina after his age-30 season in 2013. 

What mitigates this is that Cohen, whom you might have heard is loaded even for an owner, can afford such slippage — shoot, he can afford to just release Realmuto at any point and just eat the money — in return for the reward of immediately firing up Mets fans and Jacob deGrom as well as weakening the rival Phillies with this signing. And Realmuto, as per his current manager, need not remain at catcher to offer significant value.  []

And therein lies the problem with letting Realmuto hit free agency in the first place. Now, not only will the Phillies be bidding against other teams with more money or who aren't luxurytaxaphobic, but they'll also have to convince Realmuto that Philly is a place worth signing, one where he can compete for a title after failing to make the playoffs in each of his first six seasons (seven if the Phillies fall short again this season). 

Sure, they have his buddy Bryce Harper signed for the next decade-plus to help convince him to come back, but after they seemed unwilling to give him the big bucks when no one else was bidding and could be headed for a big front office overhaul this winter, would you really blame Realmuto for taking his talents elsewhere? 

We're not privy to all the behind-the-scenes negotiations that go on, but it's criminal that Klentak failed to secure Realmuto longterm after trading away one of the organization's best assets and failing to do anything with it. In essence, Klentak simply gave away Sixto Sanchez for two years of getting to watch Realmuto play every night. It hasn't happened yet, but it certainly appears to be trending in that direction. 

If that's not a fireable offense, I don't know what is. Especially when you consider the man who orchestrated this deal — and failed to make good on the second half of it by re-signing baseball's best catcher — likely won't be around to pick up the pieces. 

On second thought, that's probably for the best. 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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