While the Washington Nationals were busy introducing their new reliever, Brad Hand, on Tuesday, the division rival Philadelphia Phillies were making headway on their top offseason priority: re-signing J.T. Realmuto.
By mid-afternoon, the two sides were in agreement on a five-year, $115.5 million contract for the backstop to return to Citizens Bank Park, giving Realmuto the highest annual average value ever for a catcher at $23.1 million, beating Joe Mauer’s previous record of $23 million.
Given his performance over the last few seasons, Realmuto more than deserved the record.
The former Miami Marlin leads all catchers in fWAR since 2017, posting a .276/.335/.477 slash line with 74 home runs, 254 RBIs, and a 115 wRC+. He also excelled with the glove behind the dish too with the sixth-highest Defensive Rating in that same timeframe.
All in all, Realmuto’s stats certainly look the part of the best catcher in baseball right now.
Perhaps more than most teams in the majors, the Nationals know all about what Realmuto can bring to the table. Not only have they had to face him in their division throughout his career, but they also courted the catcher via trade while he was still with the Marlins.
Washington also had a need for a catcher entering this offseason. The departure of Kurt Suzuki left the depth chart behind the plate thin with only Yan Gomes as an established big leaguer ahead of Tres Barrera, who is the only other catcher currently on the 40-man roster.
It all seemed to line up nicely for the Nationals to be aggressive in the pursuit of a top tier catcher who could help get the most out of their best and highest-paid players in the rotation.
It didn’t quite work out like that though.
Several beat reporters covering the team consistently talked down the team’s interest in Realmuto given the budget that the Nats were planning on working with this offseason and the number of holes that needed filling across the diamond after a rough, shortened 2020 season.
That’s the way it appears to have played out. The Nationals have attacked the trade and free agent market over the past month to fill many of their needs rather than splashing out on a marquee signing, and Realmuto’s suitors dwindled before he wound up back in Philly.
Will it end up being the right call for Washington to sit out of the running for Realmuto?
The only definitive way of answering that will be to let the whole situation play out. However, given that the contract the frontline catcher ended up receiving, it’s certainly a deal the Nationals could’ve found a way to afford to try to push themselves over the top.
This is a team whose window could very quickly be shutting in the near future. The signs are all there for a team that is starting to have to pay up for key talents who have been paid near the major league minimum with new young talent to take their place on cheap contracts seemingly very few and far between in the farm system.
That’s the best time to pounce on large free agent contracts as they’re the ones more likely to have a sting in the tail. With a window closing or even closed by that time, the sting is a little less painful at that point or not at all if it resulted in a championship in the early years.
Also, most of those more expensive talents are in the rotation. The addition of Realmuto not only could’ve added his individual talents to the team, but also could’ve helped get the most out of the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin.
In the end, the reluctance to jump into the fray likely came down to the price tag for the catcher.
Could the Nationals have found a way to sign Realmuto to a similar contract to the one he signed with the Phillies and stay under the luxury tax threshold, which once again seems to be the budgetary limit ownership has set for the front office to stay below in 2021?
Well, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Washington still currently sits about $17 million below the $210 million threshold for 2021.
So to fit a hypothetical Realmuto contract under that number, all it would take would be to replace the Kyle Schwarber or Brad Hand signings with slightly lesser players, or trading away a player like Starlin Castro or Will Harris in somewhat of a salary dump to make room.
That’s not much to give up based on what the Nationals already have as things stand. It’s not quite as straightforward as that, but this is all hypothetical given he’s now off the market.
In the real world, the team’s front office decided to go in a different direction and spread the money around. We’ll see if that strategy works out in the coming season, but there's only so much spreading around that can be done before the end result becomes underwhelming.
Realmuto could’ve given the Nationals another injection of star power, but instead, he’ll be playing against them alongside Bryce Harper 19 times a season for the next five seasons...