Extension talks between the Phillies and star catcher J.T. Realmuto have been slow to progress. The 28-year-old (29 next week) lost an arbitration hearing against the Phils last month that set his 2020 salary at $10MM, although Realmuto made clear early in the arb process that he wouldn’t harbor any hard feelings regardless of the eventual hearing’s outcome.
If there’s a reason that talks have moved slowly, then, it could simply be the two-time All-Star’s asking price; MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported on the latest edition of the Big Time Baseball podcast that Realmuto’s camp has been seeking to top Buster Posey in terms of overall guarantee, adding that Paul Goldschmidt’s extension with the Cardinals has been another talking point (audio link, with Realmuto talk beginning around the 44-minute mark).
There’s a fair bit to unpack there. Back in 2013, Posey signed an eight-year, $159MM extension that was tacked onto his existing one-year, $8MM deal with which he’d avoided arbitration. Somewhat notably, that deal was negotiated by CAA’s Jeff Berry, who also represents Realmuto. Last spring, Goldschmidt signed a five-year, $130MM contract extension, coming out to $26MM per year. A six-year deal at Goldschmidt’s annual rate would put Realmuto just shy of Posey’s guarantee. Topping Goldschmidt’s annual rate by any more than $500K over a six-year term would take Realmuto past Posey in terms of overall guarantee.
Of course, Realmuto is at a different point in his career than either Posey or Goldschmidt was upon inking those respective deals. Posey was a relatively fresh-faced 26-year-old who was fresh off a National League batting title and MVP the prior year in 2012. He’d only just reached arbitration as a Super Two player, and the extension bought out his remaining three years of arb in addition to at least five free-agent years (plus an option for a sixth). Goldschmidt was, like Realmuto, on the cusp of free agency last spring when he signed his contract. However, he was headed into his age-31 season, while Realmuto will play the upcoming campaign at 29.
Realmuto is both closer to free agency than Posey was and younger than Goldschmidt was, so there’s some parallels there. Likening him to Goldschmidt is difficult, though, given that they play different positions and possess different skill sets. Realmuto derives a good bit of value from his elite defense behind the plate, and while he’s an above-average hitter, he’s never been close to the hitter that Goldschmidt has been in his peak seasons. From 2012-18, Goldschmidt posted a combined 146 wRC+ and OPS+. Realmuto, conversely, has a career-high of 126 in both metrics and has only reached that level once (2018).
Over the past four seasons, Realmuto has batted a combined .283/.335/.464 (114 OPS+, 113 wRC+). He also ranks among the game’s premier backstops in terms of pitch-framing, caught-stealing rate and blocking pitches in the dirt. In that time, Realmuto has been worth 15.1 rWAR and 17.1 fWAR.
Historically speaking, it’s tough to find an apt comparison for Realmuto. Russell Martin (five years, $82.5MM) and Brian McCann (five years, $80MM) signed similar contracts in free agency, but both are more than a half-decade old. It’s also arguable that Realmuto is better than both were when they signed. Certainly, he’s younger than Martin was when he signed in advance of his age-32 season. But Realmuto is also decidedly older than either Posey or Joe Mauer was when signing the two largest deals ever inked by a catcher. (Mauer received an eight-year, $184MM contract from the Twins in 2010.) Realmuto seems to lie somewhere between the Martin/McCann and Mauer/Posey levels.
As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes observed in the first installment of our 2020-21 Free Agent Power Rankings, Realmuto could very well become the first catcher to sign a $100MM+ deal in free agency if he’s unable to agree to terms on a deal. Whether he gets to that point will depend on whether he and the Phillies can find a middle ground and hammer out a new deal that’ll extend beyond his final season of club control.
Philadelphia’s comfort level in negotiations isn’t known, but a lack of progress would seem to indicate that the two sides aren’t that close at the moment. The Phils could certainly fit even a Goldschmidt-level annual value into the books long-term, though. They’re at $204MM in luxury obligations for the 2020 season but will see that number plummet to just under $119MM in 2021, when the luxury tax threshold rises to $210MM. An extension for Realmuto would largely be offset by the departure of Jake Arrieta, whose three-year, $75MM contract expires at season’s end.