CLEARWATER, Fla. — In 2018, Jake Arrieta took his first steps into the Phillies clubhouse in the middle of March. Last year, it was March 1 when Bryce Harper finally alighted from owner John Middleton’s private jet at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
As spring training goes, their late arrivals — and the preceding contract talks — were high drama.
This year? Other than crossing their fingers that there are enough lockers at Spectrum Field to accommodate the 71 players — 71! — expected in big-league camp, Phillies officials anticipate a more ordinary atmosphere. A marquee free agent isn’t about to walk through the door. Neither is Kris Bryant, surely a disappointment to fans who are wishing upon a blockbuster trade for the Chicago Cubs third baseman at the further expense of a lean farm system.
But if you find daily bullpen sessions and live batting practice under the Florida sun to be monotonous, don’t fret. J.T. Realmuto’s arbitration hearing next week in Phoenix and the concurrent talks about a multiyear contract extension might not be as popcorn-worthy as tracking the flight patterns of Air Middleton, but they are compelling nonetheless, especially considering manager Joe Girardi believes the All-Star catcher is worth every last cent.
“I think we have the best catcher in baseball,” Girardi said Tuesday.
General manager Matt Klentak expressed the same sentiment last February when the Phillies packaged top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, young catcher Jorge Alfaro, and minor-league pitcher Will Stewart to pry Realmuto from the Miami Marlins. Teams don’t typically give up that much for a player with only two years of club control if they don’t intend to lock him up to a long-term deal.
Why, then, are the Phillies playing hardball with Realmuto over his 2020 compensation? They offered him $10 million for the same reason that he filed a $12.4 million request. Both sides are standing up for where they believe a catcher with five years of big-league service time should fit into baseball’s overall salary structure.
It all makes next week’s hearing little more than a political statement for Realmuto, who wants to raise the bar for Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras and other star catchers who follow.
A team of representatives from his agency has been preparing to make a case, but they might want to simply bring Girardi along with them.
A catcher during his 15-year big-league career, Girardi worked as an MLB Network analyst in the last two seasons while Realmuto emerged as an All-Star by batting .276 with 46 homers and an .822 OPS and won a Gold Glove. Having gotten to know him better since getting hired by the Phillies in October, Girardi said he has gained greater appreciation for his impact.
“There’s so many things you can look at,” Girardi said. “His durability, his productivity, his work ethic are second to none. He’s just a good person. And he plays extremely hard and wants to play every day. And let’s not forget: He can run, too. I mean, there’s really no part of the game ... he throws, he blocks, he receives, he calls a great game. He’s very invested in everything that he does with pitchers and understands how to separate his at-bats from his defense.”
Throw in a few stats, maybe a video highlight package, and an arbitrator would be easily swayed by that argument.
Team officials are bracing for the possibility that Realmuto will win his hearing, which would only nudge the Phillies closer to the $208 million luxury-tax threshold. But the extension talks could prove more challenging for the sides to find common ground.
There aren’t many examples of catchers who got to within one year of free agency before signing a multiyear deal. Yadier Molina agreed to two extensions with the St. Louis Cardinals — a five-year, $75 million deal in 2012 and a three-year, $60 million contract in 2017 — but only after signing a multiyear deal in his first year of salary arbitration. He also was drafted by the Cardinals in 2000 and developed in their system.
Realmuto, who will turn 29 next month, likely will want to eclipse Joe Mauer’s $23 million annual salary, a record for a catcher. Would a five-year, $120 million deal do it? It’s possible Realmuto will set his sights on the five-year, $130 million pact that first baseman Paul Goldschmidt signed last year after being traded to the Cardinals.
And if you don’t think Realmuto has almost all of the leverage, you didn’t hear Girardi on Tuesday.
“When you get a catcher that is outstanding defensively and is outstanding offensively, you count your blessings because that doesn’t happen all the time,” Girardi said. “I mean, that’s rare. This guy’s the whole package, and that’s why I think he’s the best in baseball.”
Pretty soon, Realmuto will expect to be paid like it.
Get your popcorn ready.