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J.T. Realmuto has delivered All-Star caliber production in two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, and yet, the franchise hasn’t been able to post a winning record, let alone snap a lengthy postseason drought.
Certainly, the Phillies would be a worse team in 2021 if they don’t bring back Realmuto. But what are the Phillies if they re-sign Realmuto, while cutting costs elsewhere on the rest of the roster in a division with four other legitimate postseason contenders?
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The Atlanta Braves have won three consecutive National League East titles, and as long as they have Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies signed to team-friendly deals, they probably aren’t going anywhere.
The New York Mets have long been one of the sport’s laughingstocks, but you do get the sense that new owner Steve Cohen may change the culture in Queens. Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman will rejoin a rotation that already included two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom. Carlos Carrasco will come to New York now as part of the deal that landed the team superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor Thursday. Lindor will be added into a lineup with Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil and Dom Smith, among others. And hey, quietly, Edwin Díaz was quietly excellent in his second season with the Mets after a disastrous first campaign. Something always seems to go wrong with the Mets, but they really feel like a playoff-caliber roster, perhaps one that will compete for the division title over the next few seasons.
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The Washington Nationals find themselves at something of a crossroads, but still employ Juan Soto and Trea Turner. They’re also just a couple seasons removed from winning a World Series, of course.
The Miami Marlins, once the doormats of the National League East, appeared to see the tide turn in 2020. Not only did the Marlins sneak into the playoffs with an expanded field this past season, but they won a series over the Chicago Cubs. Former Phillies top prospect Sixto Sánchez highlights a bounty of young pitchers that the Marlins have in their organization. You’ve already seen Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez at the major league level, and Edward Cabrera and Max Meyer are among those on the way. The Marlins will always be at a financial disadvantage in the National League East, but the incredible job they’ve done developing homegrown pitching should keep them in contention over the next half decade.
And then there’s the Phillies.
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There’s a lot to like about the top half of the Phillies roster. Bryce Harper, Alec Bohm, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are players that any team would covet. The Phillies have spoken highly of Zach Eflin – who had something of a breakout campaign in 2020 – this winter. This isn’t a situation like 2014 where there’s absolutely nothing to be excited about with the franchise.
At last, the stove is heating up.
It took 69 days, but the Phillies finally hired a new head of baseball operations last week. Dave Dombrowski isn’t any executive, either. He’s the only general manager to build World Series teams in three cities.
“Everywhere he goes, he’s there to compete and win,” agent Scott Boras said. “And he has done so.”
Dombrowski insists the Phillies require “a retool, not a rebuild.” But his offseason to-do list is lengthy, and not just because he’s starting late. If the Phillies are going to end a nine-year playoff drought, they need almost an entirely new bullpen and perhaps a new catcher and shortstop, too.
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“There won’t be a lot of sleep involved the next couple of weeks,” Dombrowski said. “I’ve already received, I bet you, from at least half the general managers in Major League Baseball, ‘Welcome back. Congratulations. Let’s talk.’ ”
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Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin had a 3.65 ERA, 41 strikeouts and six walks in 37 innings over his final six starts last season.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Phillies counting on big things from Zach Eflin
Not long after Dombrowski rolled up his sleeves, charged up his phone and got to work, he identified what he believes to be an area of strength on the Phillies roster.
“When you talk about Nola, Wheeler and Eflin,” he said, “that’s a good place to start.”
But the Phillies employed all six players mentioned above in 2020 and went 28-32. They also had Didi Gregorius, and mum has been the word on a potential reunion with a player that homered 10 times and drove in 40 runs this past season. A historically-bad bullpen is almost certainly due for positive regression, especially if a young arm like Connor Brogdon emerges as reliable option in high-leverage situations. But will the Phillies have a bullpen on par with the Braves or Mets in 2021? Probably not. Unless they’re confident that one of Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn or Mickey Moniak will emerge as a starting-caliber option next year, the Phillies also don’t have an internal answer in center field.
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So what are the Phillies if they re-sign Realmuto but don’t make one or two other major moves this offseason? Probably a .500 team, give or take a few games. Teams that are retooling – hinting they are a year or two away – aren’t typically ones that sign catchers entering their age-30 season to five or six-season deals.
The Phillies unquestionably will be a worse team with anyone other than Realmuto as their starting catcher in 2021, especially with ESPN‘s Jeff Passan noting earlier this offseason that the Phillies probably won’t reinvest the money that would be spent on Realmuto on anyone else this winter if he departs.
But new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski didn’t trade for Realmuto. Sure, as he’s stated on multiple occasions, Dombrowski would love to retain the All-Star catcher. However, if in his early evaluations of the organization he’s determined that the team is probably more likely to be ready to be a force in 2023, should he re-sign Realmuto, who will be a catcher entering his age-32 season at that point? That’s a fair discussion to have.
Even if Lindor re-signs with the Mets and Corey Seager does the same with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Javier Báez, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa are star shortstops that could become free agents next offseason. All three are younger than Realmuto, and play a position that takes less of a toll on you than catching does. Maybe it would be wiser for the Phillies to save the money they could spend on Realmuto this offseason – knowing they may not contend with him while he’s still at his peak – and consider signing one of the major shortstops next offseason.
Couldn’t the Phillies re-sign Realmuto and pursue one of the major shortstops next offseason? Yes, in theory, they could. But there is a reality that owners around the sport are hesitant to spend right now, to the point where it feels pretty unlikely that the Phillies re-sign both Realmuto and Gregorius this winter. If the Phillies are potentially unwilling to spend a combined $170 million (just an estimate) on Realmuto and Gregorius this offseason, does it seem likely they’ll re-sign Realmuto for $125ish million now and then spend $150 million plus on one of the shortstops next offseason? From here, the answer is no.
In many ways, the Realmuto situation is symptomatic of much larger organizational problems. If you’re spending as much as the Phillies are on high-priced veterans, you should have a really good team. The problem is, despite the stated goal of “finding value on the margins” under former general manager Matt Klentak, the Phillies really haven’t done that. Nor have they developed a consistent pipeline of young talent through their minor league system.
And so, the Phillies find themselves in a position where if they re-sign Realmuto, it will be an upset if they win a National League East title before he’s past his peak. Given all the other holes on the roster, who knows if they’d even win a Wild Card spot during however many years Realmuto has left at the height of his powers. But if Realmuto isn’t re-signed, fans will have justifiable anger, and the Phillies may very well finish in last place in the National League East in 2021, going down looking as another year of Harper, Nola and Wheeler is wasted.