We don't need to tell you that J.T. Realmuto is the top free-agent catcher available, because he just might be the best catcher in baseball, or at least close to it. As we recently detailed, catchers this good rarely reach free agency in the first place, and there's a decent shot that he'll age well over the next few years, which is what a new contract would be paying him for.
There's also the fact that if you need a catcher and you don't get Realmuto, there's an enormous drop-off after him. Just look at the free-agent catcher list, briefly. There's some mid-30s-placeholder types, like Jason Castro or Alex Avila. There's Yadier Molina, who is 38 years old. The best alternative is probably James McCann, though it's difficult to know how much to put in his up-and-down the past two years (he was great in the first half of 2019, poor in the second half, and very good in only 111 plate appearances in 2020) after four unimpressive seasons with Detroit.
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So in that sense you might want to argue that all 30 teams could use Realmuto, and maybe they could, but that's not really going to happen. As we did with another top free-agent catcher last year, Yasmani Grandal, let's count down the 30 teams to see where Realmuto fits best. We did, for the record, nail Grandal to the White Sox almost exactly. Can we do as well again this time?
(Do note that there's no meaning to the orders of teams within the tiers, just focus on the groups they're in.)
The teams that don't really need a top catcher
30-21) White Sox, Dodgers, Giants, Royals, Twins, A's, Red Sox, Padres, Cubs, Orioles
Here's a list of starting catchers for those clubs, excluding Baltimore: Yasmani Grandal. Will Smith. Buster Posey/Joey Bart. Salvador Perez. Ryan Jeffers/Mitch Garver. Sean Murphy. Christian Vázquez. Austin Nola. Willson Contreras/Victor Caratini.
Now: Would you take Realmuto over some of those names? Sure, some of them. You wouldn't displace Grandal for him, and the A's and Dodgers aren't going to move young stars like Smith or Murphy. The Padres just traded for Nola. Realmuto is better than the Posey/Bart combination in San Francisco or the Contreras/Caratini duo in Chicago, and you'd take him over Perez, but the Giants, Cubs and Royals aren't realistically making this move. "Wait, don't the Orioles need help everywhere," you're saying, and they really do, but they also have catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 2 overall prospect in baseball, expected to debut in 2021.
For this group, it's less "is he better that what we have" than it is "are we going to bother with a new catcher when we have other things to worry about," the answer to which, generally, is no.
The team that already traded him away
It would, to be clear, be objectively funny if Realmuto returned to Miami, adding the slugging bat the Marlins so desperately need, while also catching fireballs from Sixto Sánchez and generally driving Phillies fans nuts 19 times a year for the foreseeable future. Plus, the Marlins have new leadership in first-time general manager Kim Ng, so we don't entirely know how she's going to approach team building. This is probably not going to happen, both because the Marlins don't generally play at this level in free agency and it's rare for players to return to a place that traded them like this. It would certainly be entertaining, though.
The teams that don't have a catcher
19-18) Rockies, Rays
We're being a little specious with the Rockies and very literal with the Rays. Let's start with Tampa Bay, which declined Mike Zunino's option, lost Michael Perez on waivers to Pittsburgh and had earlier cut loose third catcher Kevan Smith. Currently, the Rays have one catcher on their 40-man roster. That catcher, Ronaldo Hernández, was last seen putting up a .299 on-base percentage in 2019 in the Class A Florida State League. All due respect to Mr. Hernández: The Rays do not have a catcher.
The Rockies do, kind of, even after non-tendering starter Tony Wolters, because they also avoided arbitration with Elias Díaz by signing him to a one-year deal. Díaz has never hit much, though (a career .248/.300/.355 hitter in parts of six seasons), and he's never been a full-time starter either. Maybe rookie backup Dom Nuñez will fare better, but there's a reason Tampa Bay and Colorado rank as the bottom two teams in the FanGraphs 2021 catching projections. There's just no there there. Neither team, however, is likely to be a suitor for Realmuto.
The rebuilding teams with larger issues to worry about
17-15) Pirates, Mariners, Rangers
Yeah, no. Realmuto is better than Pittsburgh's Jacob Stallings, and even though the Mariners would like to see what they have in Luis Torrens and Tom Murphy, as would the Rangers with Jose Trevino and Sam Huff, Realmuto is better than they are, too. But those are at least options, and on teams very far away from competing. Realmuto isn't going to this group.
The contending teams with larger issues to worry about
14-13) Indians, D-backs
Your mileage may vary on the "contender" level of these clubs, but catcher is probably not the place where this is going to happen. It's true that Cleveland's Roberto Pérez hit a cover-your-eyes bad .165/.264/.216, but he was also battling injuries, and in addition to being one of the best defensive catchers in baseball -- better than Realmuto, probably -- did pop 24 homers in 2019. Cleveland has larger issues, especially in the outfield. The D-backs could potentially improve on Carson Kelly and Stephen Vogt, but they're not doing it this way.
The good, if unlikely, fits
12-9) Reds, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals
Here we have a collection of contending National League teams who would all benefit from Realmuto. The Reds didn't hit even a little in 2020, and part of that issue comes from behind the plate, where Tucker Barnhart has a great defensive reputation and a career 85 OPS+ at the plate, though they may prefer not to block prospect Tyler Stephenson. The Braves have a need to replace Marcell Ozuna's bat and a not-irreplaceable Travis d'Arnaud behind the plate, though d'Arnaud's mid-career resurgence -- he has 25 homers and a 111 OPS+ over the past two seasons -- makes this less of an urgency. The Brewers have too many catchers and also not enough catchers, but they rarely spend like this.
St. Louis would actually be a spectacular fit, because it has had enormous lineup struggles for a few years now, and it's difficult to see it going into 2021 with a catcher tandem of Andrew Knizner and Tyler Heineman. From a baseball point of view, this fit is perfect. It's more complicated than that, though. You'd think they'd want to resolve the Yadi situation one way or another first, and a team that non-tendered Kolten Wong probably isn't giving Realmuto a nine-figure deal.
Get Mike Trout back into the playoffs already, guys
It's true, to be clear, that Max Stassi did hit a very strong .278/.352/.533 in 2020. He also did that in just 105 plate appearances, and they looked very different from the .204/.285/.326 he'd put up in parts of seven seasons before. Either way, he'll be 30 in March, and he's never once taken more than 250 plate appearances in a season, so he's better viewed as a backup or part of a tandem. But more importantly, the Angels have spent years not putting enough around Trout to get baseball's best player into October -- even with 2020's expanded postseason -- and while new GM Perry Minasian clearly needs to focus on the long-broken pitching staff, wouldn't an elite catcher help with that?
We don't actually think this is likely to happen. We're just depressed thinking of another postseason without Trout in it. Help the man out.
The team that has lots of catchers but seems to have interest anyway
7) Blue Jays
Toronto is pretty loaded behind the plate. The Blue Jays have five catchers on the 40-man roster, including young veteran Danny Jansen, similarly young backup Reese McGuire and late-season folk hero Alejandro Kirk, who may or may not be able to stick behind the plate. That's not the same thing as being productive, because Toronto catchers hit pretty poorly in 2020, but considering that some teams literally do not have a catcher, it's nice depth to have.
That said, the Blue Jays are clearly planning to be aggressive this winter, and they've been connected to Realmuto. It would certainly be a huge upgrade for a team turning the corner and trying get better right now, and it might also have a secondary effect of allowing them to trade some of that catching depth for something else. We know they explored this last year, too, having met with Grandal. But the Jays have also been connected to pretty much every top free agent this winter, too. They can't sign all of them. Realmuto seems the least likely.
The rebuilding team who could make a wild splash
OK, hear us out on this one. We did, originally, have the Tigers in a previous "no way" group. Maybe that's where they belong. But then we thought about where the Tigers are in their long-running rebuild. What do the Tigers have a ton of? Talented young pitching, like Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Spencer Turnbull, with Matt Manning coming, and Matthew Boyd and Michael Fulmer still kicking around. What do the Tigers have almost nothing of? Bats. They were tied for being the sixth-weakest hitting team in 2020, and their lineup is dead last from 2018-20. Their catchers, in 2020, hit all of .202/.234/.313, which somehow was only the third-weakest catching line. We haven't seen much from Grayson Greiner or Jake Rogers that suggests they're the next great -- or even adequate -- Detroit catcher.
Point is, if you're trying to upgrade the lineup and bring along a group of young pitchers at the same time, you couldn't possibly do better than Realmuto. We've heard absolutely nothing to connect the two sides, to be clear, but you can toss out any assertions that it's "too soon" for Detroit to make this move. Let's refer you to when Jon Lester headed to Chicago, or Eric Hosmer to San Diego, or Jayson Werth to Washington, or, you know, that time a certain 119-loss team signed a certain future Hall of Fame catcher and were in the World Series two years later. Anyone remember that guy?
The obviously great fits
OK, now we're talking. Let's get into the good ones.
Realmuto is a big-name free agent, so of course the Yankees are going to be connected. It's true that they (correctly, in our view) decided to tender Gary Sánchez a contract, but it's also true that Sánchez is just about as far from being a sure thing as you can get right now, on both sides of the ball. Think about the ramifications here if they were to sign Realmuto. It would improve the offense, obviously, and bring a ton more certainty behind the plate. It would allow the club to either use Sánchez as a DH/backup catcher until they can see if he's going to turn it around, or even trade him this winter. Plus, since Realmuto has been so heavily connected to the Mets, wouldn't this be a nice way to steal back those backpage headlines?
Washington finds itself in a situation where it has two absolute star-level hitters (Juan Soto, Trea Turner) and little else on offense, mostly because Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon departed without really being replaced, but also a talented-if-aging starting rotation (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin will all be 31 or older). The Nationals almost traded for Realmuto two years ago before Miami moved him to Philadephia, and they've at least been loosely connected this offseason. The incumbent catcher, Yan Gomes, will be 34 next season and profiles better as a backup at this point.
Realmuto grew up in Del City, Okla., so aside from Dallas or Kansas City, this is about as close as he could get to going home. While it sure feels like the recent era of Astros success has come to an end, this is a team that also still has Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Zack Greinke, Jose Altuve, and better young pitching than you think they do. What they don't have (aside from, you know, an outfield), is a catcher, where 34-year-old Martín Maldonado (career .218/.293/.356 line) is adequate, but hardly a roadblock.
It's a little difficult to talk about any particular Phillies move without wondering, big picture, what the franchise is even doing. The Phillies still don't have a general manager, or a president of baseball operations, or whatever they're going to do. We know they badly need to blow up the entire bullpen and start over; we know, to put it lightly, the fanbase is not pleased. There's probably not anything they could do to satisfy the locals more than to bring back the popular Realmuto, in part because they had to give up Sixto Sánchez to get him, and in part because they desperately needed him. Andrew Knapp and Rafael Marchan aren't going to get it done.
Obviously. The new-look Mets are in on every top free agent, especially so behind the plate, because they're simply not starting 2021 with a duo of Tomás Nido and Ali Sánchez. What better way to improve than to add Realmuto, especially with the added bonus of tweaking the Phillies? It's more than that, really, because there's a good deal of evidence that the struggles of Wilson Ramos behind the plate contributed to the struggles of Edwin Díaz and others. We've heard the rumors that the Mets may be more interested in James McCann, but we're not putting too much into that. Realmuto is considerably better -- it's not close, really -- and if you're going to go give a catcher multiple years, it might as well be the best one.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Ballpark Dimensions podcast.