The Phillies should be cautious on long-term deal with J.T. Realmuto

There’s no denying J.T. Realmuto’s status as an elite catcher, but the Philadelphia Phillies have to be thinking cautiously about a long-term deal.

J.T. Realmuto led all catchers in fWAR last year, (5.7) his first with the Philadelphia Phillies after being acquired from the Miami Marlins. He set career-highs in home runs (25) and RBIs (83), with his typical slash line (.275/.328/.493), while also winning his first career Gold Glove.

Realmuto was seeking a $12.4 million salary for this year via arbitration, while the Phillies countered at $10 million. Mark Feinsand of MLB..com reported Thursday that Realmuto lost his arbitration case, but the $10 million is still an arbitration record for a catcher.

Realmuto and the Phillies have come off with the same tone in terms of the team wanting to work out a long-term deal and him wanting to stay. But a deal does not necessarily seem imminent, and it’s worth wondering if this recent arbitration hearing will have any affect on talks. Around a month ago, Realmuto pointed to the system rather than any hard feelings toward the Phillies as the arbitration hearing loomed.

Realmuto will turn 29 on March 18, and while he has established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball, the decline can come quickly for even the elite at the position. Joe Mauer and Buster Posey are prominent recent examples. Realmuto does get a little relief from the wear and tear of playing behind the plate by getting some time at first base. But after playing 13 games there for the Marlins in 2018, he played just four games at first base for the Phillies last year as Rhys Hoskins is pretty much locked in there (158 games).

The Phillies, in theory, have several months to hammer out a long-term deal with Realmuto before he would become a free agent. Owner John Middleton’s comment early last offseason about a willingness to spend “stupid money” was proven out with the signing of Bryce Harper, and with Joe Girardi stepping in as manager, the gap between high expectations and practical reality has naturally narrowed. Ponying up on a deal with Realmuto would be right in line with maintaining a high payroll for years to come, and maintaining the profession of a win-now mentality.

From Realmuto’s side, the starting point on a long-term deal stands to be more than the $10 million he’s making this year. While $11-$12 million per year isn’t necessarily a deterrent to keep a top player at a scarce position, a deal that keeps Realmuto in that pay range into his mid-30’s has a good chance to look bad by the end.

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A long-team deal with Realmuto, or any catcher approaching 30 years old as a team considers it, has to be more about term than money. A mix of aggressiveness and caution should be the mode for the Phillies. So a base four-year deal worth $45-$50 million, with a couple of option years tacked on, is an offer that embraces both a desire to win big now and a measure of evaluation to be done down the road.

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