May 13, 2020
The Phillies couldn't be in a worse spot with their superstar catcher right now.
J.T. Realmuto is in his prime, and if the season were going on right now there is little doubt he'd be the leading vote getter to be the NL's backstop in the All-Star Game. He's arguably the Phillies' most valuable player right now, as he was slated to earn just $10 million (after he lost his offseason arbitration case) — well below market value.
The problem is, with Realmuto preparing to become an unrestricted free agent in October, the Phillies really have no idea what his market value is right now. Is that why he's still not locked up longterm?
Before spring training started, it seemed as though both sides were intent on getting a deal done to keep Realmuto behind the plate in Philly. He was expected to ink the largest deal for a catcher in baseball history. That expectation is murky now.
The 2020 season is nowhere near being ready to start, as the MLB and the players have just begun negotiating on how to commence a new season. Safety is a concern, so is money — and money is the issue that makes Realmuto's situation so weird.
What will the market look like in the fall? With revenues, at best, half of what they were expected to be, what will Realmuto command on the open market? What is a fair deal? And what will the Phillies be able to afford?
The team is already very close to the luxury tax threshold as it is. It would be short-sighted for them to negotiate with Realmuto before they have any inkling what the future might hold. But that also invites some risk that they'll lose him. And one division rival seems intent on snatching the catcher if the Phillies blink. Realmuto's name came up in a mailbag earlier this week from Mets beat writer Mike Puma of The New York Post:
The Mets wanted Realmuto in a deal with the Marlins before the 2019 season, so it would be surprising if the team doesn’t pursue the CAA client (Van Wagenen used to co-head the firm’s baseball division) in free agency this upcoming offseason.
Wilson Ramos — who was signed only after it became evident the Mets had moved on from a trade with Miami — could return on a club option for 2021, but Realmuto would represent a clear upgrade at catcher. At this point, Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie and Michael Wacha are the players with CAA ties Van Wagenen has brought to the Mets. Will any of them work out? Realmuto belongs in a different category than the others — he’s in the prime of his career and the scarcity of quality catchers makes him an appealing option for many clubs. [New York Post]
Of course, given Realmuto's credentials, there will likely be several more suitors on the open market should he hit free agency.
Therefore, there is a realistic chance that Realmuto never plays again for the Phillies. The combination of the awkwardly unknown financial state of baseball paired with the chance that the union doesn't agree to start the season (or the pandemic makes it impossible to play) puts the Phillies and Realmuto both in unenviable positions.
Here's more, from Phillies beat writer Jim Salisbury from back in March:
But what happens if the season is shortened dramatically? A shorter season would not eliminate the risk of injury because injury has no calendar and it does not discriminate Game 25 from Game 152. But, could fewer games be enough of a mitigating factor in Realmuto’s mind that he takes the risk of playing whatever the 2020 season looks like without the security of an extension so he can take his chances on greater free-agent riches in just a few months?
It’s something to think about.
But so is this:
Regardless of whether the 2020 season is simply altered, shortened or canceled altogether, revenues throughout the game are going to shrink, maybe drastically. The shutdown affects everything from ticket sales, to parking, to merchandise and concessional sales. It affects the huge revenues that teams generate through national and local media deals (TV and radio) and sponsorships. Fewer dollars coming in will affect the overall pool and that could impact next winter’s free-agent market in the amount of money that teams have to spend. [NBCSP]
Having to wait for free agency, or at least until a new season begins before Realmuto's contract gets addressed could just be a reality — one of many hard ones baseball fans must deal with in a world that is volatile and absent of baseball.
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