The center of the J.T. Realmuto market might be the National League East, with the Phillies looking to re-sign him and the Mets in the mix for just about every big name out there. But a third NL East club, the Nationals, shouldn’t be overlooked in this race.
Washington talked extensively with the Marlins about a trade for Realmuto two years ago before Miami dealt him to Philadelphia, and MLB Network insider/The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal noted on colleague Jayson Stark’s podcast earlier this month that a league executive predicted the Nats “could be a player” for the backstop again this offseason.
The Phillies, of course, signed Bryce Harper away from Washington after the 2018 season, but the Nationals got the last laugh, winning a World Series title in ’19. Washington could get another one over on its division rival by luring Realmuto away from Philadelphia.
A Realmuto deal with Washington could also have an impact on the rest of the market. Here’s a look at what could happen if the catcher signs with the Nationals.
McCann market heats up
If Realmuto is off the table, it could spark a competition for James McCann, the second-best catcher on the free-agent market. The Phillies and Mets presumably would join the chase, which could also include catcher-needy teams such as the Astros, Rays, Cardinals and Brewers. The Yankees could, too, if they non-tender or trade Gary Sánchez.
The 30-year-old McCann has hit .276/.334/.474 over the past two seasons -- similar to Realmuto’s .273/.333/.492 line in that same timeframe. He also markedly improved his framing numbers in 2020, converting 51.4% of non-swing pitches into called strikes in the shadow zone, the eighth-highest mark in MLB. He had the ninth-worst strike rate in 2019, at 45%.
More pressure on the Phillies
If the Phillies lose Realmuto two years after giving up pitching prospect Sixto Sánchez to get him, the pressure would be on them to replace him, regardless of where he ends up. Philadelphia now has the second-longest postseason drought in MLB, missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season in 2020.
Harper showed faith in the franchise when he signed a 13-year deal without any opt outs, and he has made it clear he wants the Phillies to re-sign Realmuto.
“J.T. Realmuto needs to be our catcher next year,” Harper said after the Phillies’ last game of the season. “Plain and simple. He’s the best catcher in baseball. He’s the best-hitting catcher in baseball. Our guys love to throw to him. Anybody that’s the best at their position -- hitting and fielding -- needs to be signed, and that is J.T. Realmuto. I don’t think that should even be a question.”
Philadelphia would risk alienating its best player if it can’t strike a deal with Realmuto, though it could soften the blow by pivoting to another big-name target. The Phils have been connected to Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, and they’d be a fit for Trevor Bauer, George Springer and DJ LeMahieu, but it remains to be seen how aggressive they’ll be with the payroll after the pandemic-shortened season.
If none of those players are realistic options, McCann would be a nice Plan B at catcher, and Philadelphia could also look to re-sign shortstop Didi Gregorius, but would that be enough to keep Harper happy?
Cubs get Braves on the line
MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi reported last week that the Nationals have been considering a deal for Bryant. But if Washington lands Realmuto, such a trade becomes more unlikely.
Where, then, would the Cubs turn?
What about the Braves? Atlanta would make sense as a fit for Bryant after the club’s third basemen posted a collective .708 OPS this past season after losing Josh Donaldson to free agency.
The Braves have done well with one-year contracts in the past two years, first with Donaldson and then with Marcell Ozuna. Bryant will essentially be on a one-year deal in 2021, though Atlanta would also need to surrender assets to acquire him, while the other two were signed as free agents.
While the lack of long-term control and Bryant’s 2021 salary (projected by MLB Trade Rumors to be nearly $19 million) could limit the return, the Braves have a number of prospects who could be of interest to the Cubs, including outfielder Drew Waters (MLB’s No. 22 prospect), catcher Shea Langeliers (MLB’s No. 65 prospect), shortstop Braden Shewmake (Braves’ No. 5 prospect) and left-hander Kyle Muller (Braves’ No. 6 prospect).
Contreras on the block?
While he’s not part of the group of Cubs stars heading for free agency a year from now, Chicago catcher Willson Contreras could find himself on the trade block as well this offseason.
Contreras is controllable for two more seasons, which could make him more valuable than some of their other trade chips.
The 28-year-old has a career .814 OPS (113 OPS+), and he vastly improved his pitch framing in 2020. Chicago could shop him to the Realmuto suitors that come up short.