The Enigmatic Nature of J.T. Realmuto’s Free Agency

J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in Major League Baseball. At the same time, it’s difficult to find a team that’s both a logical and likely landing spot for J.T. Realmuto.

How can a player of the 29-year-old’s caliber struggle to find a home and get a contract of his choosing?

Realmuto is quick to his feet on wild pitches, makes crisp throws around the diamond, and posted a 12 DRS behind the plate in 2019. Meanwhile, he’s one of the best hitting catchers in the sport.

Realmuto has a level, resounding swing that generates power, and he puts the ball in play at a high level. From 2016-19 (2,248 plate appearances) he totaled 74 home runs and 270 RBIs while posting a .799 OPS and a 114 OPS+. Last season Realmuto posted a career-best .840 OPS. In two of the last three seasons he led big-league catchers in OPS.

Here’s the thing: there are other catchers available who swing the stick well, too. James McCann recently signed a four-year, $40.6 million deal with the New York Mets. Sure, maybe he’s not as reliable behind the plate as Realmuto, recording a five and four DRS in 2020 and 2019, respectively. That said, McCann is as offensively sound as Realmuto. Last season McCann posted a career-best .896 OPS and a 144 OPS+ and is a season removed from clubbing 18 home runs.

According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Los Angeles Angels are interested in signing former Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki. From 2017-19 Suzuki totaled 48 home runs and 163 RBIs while posting a combined .820 OPS. Like McCann, Suzuki may not be as reliable behind the plate as Realmuto. Offensively speaking, what’s the drop-off from Realmuto to McCann or Suzuki? It’s a minuscule disparity.

Why does their offensive production matter? McCann, 30, fetched a $40 million deal. Suzuki is coming off a two-year, $10 million deal and likely cashes in on a similar deal this offseason. What does Realmuto want? An October article from MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki had Realmuto “eyeing a record-shattering contract” in the ballpark of $200 million. Is Realmuto worth two and in some cases three times more than McCann and Suzuki from a salary standpoint? He is not.

The best model for extrapolating Realmuto’s career across a long-term contract is Buster Posey, who stood atop MLB’s catching pedestal not too long ago. Like Realmuto, Posey was the best all-around catcher in the game for a few seasons. In March 2013 he signed an eight-year, $159 million extension with the San Francisco Giants, which runs through the 2022 season.

Keep in mind that Posey is just three years older than Realmuto. Since signing his prime years to the Giants (2013-present), Posey has hit a combined .298 and posted a combined .808 OPS. That’s pretty good, but the best years came well before he hit the wrong side of 30.

If Realmuto signs a six-to-eight-year deal and performs along the same lines as Posey, he would be posting an OPS around the league-average three seasons into the deal.

Some catchers, especially those who were once the premier player at the position, gradually get moved out to first base as their careers progress. This happened to Joe Mauer towards the end of his career, and Posey has gradually moved out to the corner infield position. Last season Realmuto made six appearances at first, including two starts.

Let’s say Realmuto gets the money he desires and then permanently moves to first base in four years while performing to his career tendencies at the plate: is he still worth the mammoth contract?

A handful of teams have been continually linked to Realmuto this offseason including the Mets, Nationals, and Toronto Blue Jays, who all aren’t the transparent options they may have been a year ago.

The Mets are presumably out of the running for Realmuto given the McCann pact. Plus, they already have a vibrant offensive attack and still have to improve their starting rotation.

Per Rosenthal, the Nationals are more likely to “spread the money around” to fill voids on their roster (quote via NBC Sports Washington), and they already have Gomes; they could run it back with Gomes and Suzuki, who would have to be re-signed.

The Blue Jays could use a catcher, but with a loaded positional core and voids to fill on their pitching staff, is backing up the truck for Realmuto the prudent play?

There’s also the elephant in the room: MLB teams trying to keep their payrolls down given the uncertainty of revenues in the near future, as well as the hit taken by those across the sport this past season. What about other teams with low payrolls? The Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland, and Detroit Tigers own the five lowest payrolls in MLB and typically make low-payroll-savvy moves. Why would they all of a sudden pay Realmuto top-flight coin?

Whoever signs Realmuto is upgrading at catcher. His talent and track record speaks for itself. He adds a compact, middle-of-the-order bat to a lineup card and makes a pitching staff better with his skill set behind the plate. It’s a matter of whether what he brings to the table warrants a record deal at his position given the financial climate of the sport.

J.T. Realmuto’s free agent status is an enigma.

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