J.T. Realmuto, the best two-way catcher in baseball for a half-decade, has agreed to a five-year, $115.5 million contract to return to the Philadelphia Phillies, sources said Tuesday.
The contract would be the largest ever in average annual value — $23.1 million — for a catcher.
Joe Mauer, who retired — as a first baseman — after the 2018 season, had an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. Buster Posey has one guaranteed season remaining on a nine-year, $167 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. Mauer and Yadier Molina are the only catchers to receive multiyear contracts with average annual values of $20 million or more.
Realmuto pursuit stirs competition
In the past five seasons, Realmuto, 29, leads catchers in games played, holds the best offensive WAR, and is in the top five in home runs, batting and OPS. He also was one of the better defensive catchers in the league — rating out as solidly above average in Baseball Prospectus’ framing-inclusive catcher defense metric in each of the past two years.
All of which led to a conundrum for the Philadelphia Phillies, who two years ago traded catcher Jorge Alfaro and right-hander Sixto Sanchez to the Miami Marlins for Realmuto. A year after the Marlins emptied their roster for a rebuild, trading away Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, among others, the Phillies, sensing they were on the brink of relevance, acquired Realmuto at that heavy price. Realmuto was an All-Star in 2019 and was statistically better over the shortened 2020 season, though the Phillies, despite also signing Bryce Harper for $330 million, discovered they’d overestimated themselves. They missed the playoffs in both seasons, neither of which resulted in so much as a winning record.
The re-signing of Realmuto became a popular cause among Phillies fans. Early negotiations fell apart, however, and Realmuto reached free agency as likely the most attractive player on the market.
The Phillies meantime demoted their general manager and, in the midst of that, owner John Middleton suggested the trade for Realmuto was shortsighted. He then hired veteran executive Dave Dombrowski to run his baseball operations.
“The fact of the matter is,” Middleton told reporters in October, “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. 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.”
At about the same time, the team’s premier and highest-paid player was coming in on the side of the fans.
“Anybody that's the best at their position — hitting and fielding — needs to be signed and that is J.T. Realmuto,” Harper told reporters. “I don't think that should even be a question. There's going to be two teams or three teams in the NL East who are going to go after that guy, and if that happens, I mean, that's going to be tough to swallow for us.”
Middleton cited the uncertainties of 2021 — among them, whether fans would be allowed to return to ballparks — as a factor in bringing back Realmuto.
The market that arose for Realmuto reflected his place in a game that lacks an abundance of catchers adept at both catching pitches and hitting them. There were early predictions Realmuto could top Mauer’s record contract for a catcher, because of his body of work and the financial heft of teams who sought him.
In the NL East alone, the New York Mets and Washington Nationals ranked in the second half of baseball in overall catcher production. The Mets had new ownership with a new attitude and the Nationals had followed a World Series title with a dark October.
The Los Angeles Angels, under a new general manager, needed a veteran catcher. They signed Kurt Suzuki. The Atlanta Braves were thought to have interest, as did the St. Louis Cardinals, were they unable to re-sign Molina, the Toronto Blue Jays and others. Even the New York Yankees, after a season in which Gary Sanchez batted .147, struck out 64 times in 156 at-bats and for the third time led the league in passed balls, were believed to be players.
Realmuto rejected the Phillies’ qualifying offer on Nov. 11, meaning the team that signed him would forfeit a draft pick. He instead returned to the Phillies.
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