PHILADELPHIA -- J.T. Realmuto’s belief that the best players in baseball will always be paid like the best has not wavered over the past several months.
Wednesday’s news that Mookie Betts and the Dodgers agreed to a massive multiyear contract extension should strengthen his resolve to sign a potentially record-setting contract for a catcher. Betts’ deal is 12 years, $365 million, not including the $27 million ($10 million prorated) he will make this season, according to multiple reports. The deal is significant for Phillies fans because contract negotiations between the team and Realmuto stalled, perhaps as far back as March.
They stalled in part because Realmuto believes he should be paid as one of baseball’s elite, while the Phils believe the economic landscape in baseball has changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, making it difficult to know Realmuto’s true market value.
Betts’ deal makes Realmuto’s entry into free agency a near certainty at this point. It indicates that the market for star talent remains, even if the Phillies wonder.
Perhaps this will motivate the Phils to get a deal done. Then again, maybe not.
“In terms of the Mookie Betts contract, I had a chance to kind of go through the terms this afternoon and look at it,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said Thursday. “I'm always careful not to weigh in on another team's player or contract, but I will say that it appears to me that it was a very creative and collaborative solution that really reflects the uniqueness of 2020. I should probably just leave it there, because again, that's a player in somebody else's uniform, and I don't know all the particulars of what went into it, but I'll kind of let it stand there.”
But pressure is building, externally from a fan base starved for a winner and internally from the face of the franchise and one of the sport’s greatest stars.
“I’m going to be here for a long time and I want what’s best for this organization, and I think everyone in our clubhouse wants what’s best,” Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper said Wednesday. “I think, from the top to the bottom, we have guys in control that want that as well. So if J.T. is the best for our organization, that’s going to set us up long term to try to win World Series, we can do that. I think my contract is pretty suitable to bring guys in here. That’s why I lengthened it out for as long as I did. Hopefully, we can get that deal done to the best of our ability.”
Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies in February 2019. The Phils extended the length of the contract to lower the average annual value to $25.4 million per season, giving them more financial flexibility to stay underneath the luxury tax.
“J.T. has done what he’s needed to do to hopefully get that deal that he wants, and he deserves that,” Harper said. “I don’t think J.T. has to sign the extension. He’s able to go into free agency and get what he deserves from anybody in this league, from the West Coast to the East Coast, from North to South. So, you know, of course, I want him to be here. I think a lot of people want him to be here from top to bottom.
"I think the Mookie Betts deal just goes to show that teams can still afford players at this moment and in this trying time of COVID. And I think that definitely helps J.T. and his cause, and you know what, I just think he’d help us as an organization and that’s it, plain and simple. And I think [general manager Matt] Klentak knows that and I think [managing partner] John [Middleton] knows that and I think a lot of guys in this organization know that.”
Betts illustrates Harper’s point. He rejected a reported 10-year, $300 million contract extension with the Red Sox last year, prompting Boston to trade him.
Betts did not take a discount to stay in L.A., although The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Players Association values the deal at $306,657,882 because of heavy deferrals. Perhaps that is what Klentak meant when he referred to the “creative and collaborative solution that really reflects the uniqueness of 2020.”
Regardless, Realmuto will not take a discount to stay in Philly, especially when he is so close to free agency. The catcher took a principled stand in the salary arbitration process in February. The Phillies offered $10 million, a record-setting amount for a catcher in his final year of salary arbitration eligibility. But Realmuto sought $12.4 million because he believed he compared favorably to third baseman Anthony Rendon, who earned $12.3 million in 2018 with the Nationals.
Realmuto lost, but he tried. He made his point.
Realmuto’s position seems to have strengthened in another sense: Now that Betts is off the board, Realmuto arguably becomes the best player available in the free-agent market. Last season, Betts ranked ninth in baseball with a 6.6 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. Realmuto had a 5.7 WAR, which ranked 15th. Betts’ 22.4 WAR over the past three seasons ranks second behind Mike Trout (25.2). Realmuto’s 15 WAR over the past three seasons is 13th.
But while there are other talented outfielders potentially hitting the market this winter, including George Springer (13.9 WAR from 2017-19) and Michael Brantley (9.2 WAR), no catcher compares to Realmuto.
So what might it take to sign Realmuto? Buster Posey signed an eight-year, $159 million deal with the Giants. Joe Mauer signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Twins. Mauer’s $23 million average annual value is a record for catchers. Realmuto would like to beat that.
We might not know those final numbers until the winter. But on one of the final days of Summer Camp, Realmuto got good news: Betts got his. He believes he will get his, too.