The Hot Stove season is underway, and much of the free-agent attention will focus on five players: J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, George Springer, DJ LeMahieu and Marcell Ozuna. Where will these players land? MLB.com reporters gathered a roundtable to discuss.
First up: Realmuto. (Bauer’s on deck.)
Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): Let’s start with a very basic question -- of the big five free agents, Realmuto, Bauer, Springer, Ozuna and LeMahieu -- is Realmuto, given his talent and the position he plays, the most valuable of the group?
Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): I believe so, simply for the fact that he’s the best catcher in the game and that’s not something that hits the free-agent market very often. One executive recently compared him to “a unicorn” for that reason. He’s the only one of the group who qualifies as the best player at his position right now. Not just among free agents, but in the entire sport.
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Todd Zolecki (@ToddZolecki, Phillies beat reporter): I think he is the greatest upgrade at his position available. He can hit, run, throw and has improved greatly as a pitch framer. If you need a catcher and don't get Realmuto, there is a significant drop-off.
Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo, Mets beat reporter): I would stop short of calling Realmuto the most valuable free agent out there. George Springer is also an up-the-middle player who can impact all areas of the game, and there's probably some better projection for him long term because he’s not getting beat up behind the plate every night. That said, the drop-off from Realmuto to the next-best catcher out there is steep. So while he may not be the most valuable player, he could certainly represent the best value on the market -- even at a high price.
Feinsand: The chance to acquire a top catcher -- via free agency or trade -- is very rare. That’s why he’s the most valuable. Outfielders can be found in a variety of ways. For the 2021 season alone, however, I would probably say Bauer has the chance to make the biggest impact on a team. An ace sets the tone for the rest of a team’s rotation.
Footer: Whenever a top player is heading to free agency, we hear a lot of the same narrative about where he may want to sign. The desire to play close to home is always a big one (and mostly inaccurate -- such as Gerrit Cole’s desire to play close to home in California). We also hear whispers that a player may want to remain with his current team. What are we hearing about Realmuto, and how much stock should we put into it?
Feinsand: There were some rumors that he isn’t thrilled about playing in New York. Neither was CC Sabathia. Or Mike Mussina. I put zero stock into those reports.
Footer: Players in the past have told me sometimes playing close to home is too stressful. Too many people always wanting something, especially tickets.
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DiComo: I agree completely with Mark on that one. So much of free agents saying they don't want to play certain places is posturing. It's all part of the negotiation process. Every once in a while it turns out to be true, but I generally believe none of it.
Zolecki: J.T. seems to like Philly. He has said as much. I've heard the same thing about New York, too. And I agree: I never believe any of that stuff. Ninety-nine percent of the time it comes down to money. If the money is there, the player almost always follows.
Feinsand: These things almost always come down to money, especially when it’s the player’s chance for what will likely be the biggest deal of his career. I’m not saying Realmuto will automatically take the highest offer, but whatever deal he signs, it will be in the ballpark of the highest offer.
Zolecki: I remember, just a couple years ago, Phillies fans were freaking out because somebody reported that Bryce [Harper] didn't like Philly. How did that turn out?
Feinsand: I don’t know, Todd. The past two years haven’t been the best for the Phillies …
Footer: I was suspicious of the report that Realmuto was against going to NY. I mean, it's not like he's playing in Denver right now. Philly and New York aren't THAT different, right?
Zolecki: Yeah, I don't think Philly and New York are so different. If you can handle Philly, I think you can handle New York.
Feinsand: Realmuto has played his entire career in the NL East. He knows what Citi Field is about, he knows what New York is about. And with a new deep-pocketed owner, I can’t see him crossing the Mets off his list.
DiComo: People forget that "moving" to New York for a free agent generally means getting an apartment in or around the city and spending home games there for six months out of the year. They commute to the ballpark and commute home, and that's about it, save for the rare night off. They spend offseasons at home, and sometimes even go home on off-days. It's not as big a commitment as folks make it seem.
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Footer: Let's talk about what makes Realmuto so good. Todd, in your time covering J.T., what stands out to you in terms of outstanding qualities, besides the obvious stats? The trust pitchers have in him? Ability to control the running game? I remember interviewing him when he was a Marlins prospect, and thinking, "He’s going to make it." He just had that swagger, the confidence.
Zolecki: He has a Chase Utley-type presence about him. It seems like his game face is always on. Teammates respect him, which is important. On the field, he really can do it all. He can hit, hit for power, run, throw, receives well, etc.
That's why Phillies fans are freaking out so much about possibly losing him. They know there's nobody who can come close to replacing him.
Feinsand: A few execs I recently spoke with all pointed to his speed and athleticism. Scouts believe he will age well, even as a catcher, which makes the prospect of a five-year deal less daunting than it might otherwise be.
Zolecki: If anybody will beat the aging curve for a catcher, I would bet on Realmuto. He's a tremendous athlete.
Footer: If Realmuto doesn’t stay with the Phillies, the Mets look like the next most likely team to have a real shot at him. How badly do the Mets need him? We know they want him. But how much do they need him?
DiComo: Again, it's about the opportunity cost. The top catcher on their roster right now is Tomás Nido. Their top prospect, Francisco Alvarez, is legit, but at least two years away and probably more. Internally, there's no one else who profiles as a starter. If they don't get Realmuto, their next-best option is probably James McCann, who isn't nearly the proven player that Realmuto is. After that? It might be Wilson Ramos, and you don't need to tell Mets fans about that. Short of a blockbuster trade (and who exactly has a marquee catcher for sale?), there are just no great options after Realmuto.
Feinsand: Yadi [Molina]!
Zolecki: Losing Realmuto to the Mets is every Phillies fan's worst nightmare. It's discussed nonstop in Philly.
I'm not sure most baseball fans can name owners of other teams, but every Phillies fan knows Steve Cohen.
Feinsand: It’s funny how the Mets, Yankees and Phillies are still such hot topics in New York and Philly in November. That’s what bad football will do to a city, I guess.
Steve Cohen just had his introductory press conference. He spoke about building an annual contender. There is no better way for him to ingratiate himself to his new fan base than to sign Realmuto.
Footer: Let’s review the other teams that might be in the hunt. The Yankees would enjoy a huge defensive upgrade if they replaced [Gary] Sánchez with Realmuto. This would be a very Yankees thing to do, right? Make everyone think it's between the Phillies and the Mets and then they sweep in and outbid everyone?
Feinsand: The Yankees have been pretty transparent about their financial intentions for this offseason. They need to sign LeMahieu, then either bring back [Masahiro] Tanaka or sign another starter. I just don’t see Realmuto fitting into their plans this winter. That said, I covered the Yankees for 16 years. I know better than to say never.
Footer: Mark, you listed six teams in your column speculating where he might land: Phillies, Yankees, Mets, Cardinals, Angels, Nationals. Of those teams, what is your best guess as to who’s the LEAST likely to sign him?
Feinsand: The Yankees, for the reasons I mentioned above. After that, I’d say the Cardinals. I think they will work something out with Molina to bring him back for another year or two. If St. Louis is going to spend big on a free agent (which I’m not sure they will, unless that was the reason for cutting ties with Kolten Wong), I think Springer would make more sense.
Footer: Last question -- here comes the part where I put you on the spot. Where will Realmuto sign? Go!
Feinsand: Mets. Five years, $125 million. That’s $25 million per year, which would be a new record for a catcher.
DiComo: Mets. Look, we have no track record with Steve Cohen, so it's not easy to say with 100 percent clarity how he will operate. But I genuinely believe the Mets will prioritize the position and prioritize the player, and get their guy in Cohen's first big splash.
Feinsand: Be careful what you say, Todd. Philly is watching.
Zolecki: I'm going to pick the Mets. I think the Phillies still have a shot, but there's so much uncertainty right now with their leadership. It doesn't look like they're in any hurry to hire a new GM or president of baseball operations. Who's doing the negotiating? But if Realmuto can't find his market, I can see the Phillies bringing him back.