The Phillies have been pursuing a contract extension with JT Realmuto for some time now, and an inability to lock him down long-term would be a failure on all fronts. The fact that it has dragged on this long should be a major red flag, and it’s time to consider the possibility of a deal never happening.
Realmuto has given every indication that he wants to be a Phillie long term, and the Phillies have turned around and given him every reason (and lots of time) to reconsider that decision. The closer a player gets to the open market, the harder it will be to turn down the opportunity to test it, and the front office doesn’t seem to understand that.
When Klentak traded away Jorge Alfaro and the best pitching prospect the club has had in a while in Sixto Sanchez, it was a foregone conclusion that Realmuto was part of their long term plans. Yet, in a bid to stay under the luxury tax for 2020, Middleton and Klentak elected to let the final year of Realmuto’s rookie contract begin without an extension in place. On top of that, they failed to land a compromise with his camp over his salary for 2020, and were forced into arbitration over a meager $2.4 million.
Rookie contracts work like this: Years 1-3 are paid the minimum $400-600k, and years 4-6 are considered ‘arbitration years’ where the team and player agree on a market-value salary for that season — if they fail to do so then it goes to arbitration (court, essentially).
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However, it’s rare for the league’s top talent to enter their arbitration years without a long term deal already in place (see: Nola), let alone get all the way to ‘arb. year 3’ without a deal. And it’s even more rare for those cases to go all the way to court — normally both parties come to an understanding — yet, that’s what we have here. The Phillies went to court with the best catcher in baseball (a player they’re already planning to pay $100+ million in the future) to determine if his salary would be $10 or $12.4 million for the final year of his current contract. Take a second to truly grasp the absurdity of that.
It’s important to note that a player has never gone all the way to arbitration in the final year of their contract and then re-signed with that club the following winter. That means Klentak and MacPhail are betting on making history in order to sign Realmuto long-term.
Pundits will use Ryan Howard as an example of an ugly arbitration process ending with a long term extension for the Phillies and tell you to relax, but that couldn’t be more misleading. The key detail to note is that Howard was in his first season of arbitration-eligibility, not his third like JT — the two scenarios aren’t even remotely similar. This situation is fairly unprecedented, but the few parallel instances you’ll find all ended up poorly for the incumbent ball club.
It’s truly hard to verbalize how big of a colossal, self-imposed screw-up this would be for the organization. For the sake of not blowing a giant hole in the middle of a rebuild that’s near-complete, and for the sake of keeping his own employment, Klentak needs to give Realmuto a blank check the next opportunity he gets.