We got our first major transactional news since last week’s surprisingly tantalizing Wade Miley signing and it was, in a plot twist that surprised absolutely no one (given the sorry state of the offseason) a trade rather than a signing. We still don’t know what’s going to happen with Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but we have an intradivisional blockbuster to discuss.
After Miami’s all-too-familiar auction last offseason, catcher J.T. Realmuto was the last man standing, and he had made it clear he wanted to be traded way back before Christmas, when we still had hopes and dreams of a far warmer stove. After an offseason filled with flirting with any team looking to upgrade behind the plate, the Marlins finally sealed the deal and traded catcher J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies. We’re going to work our way through who and what is headed to Miami shortly, but the first thing we need to discuss is just how good Realmuto has been, because he has been very much deserving of that label.
Over the last three seasons, Realmuto has been one of the best catchers in baseball, if not the best, hitting .286/.338/.454 and fielding his position well enough to lead the pack in fWAR since 2016 with 12.3 fWAR, placing him two wins ahead of Buster Posey. He also just had his most successful year at the plate, relative to the rest of the league, with a 126 wRC+, meaning that he was 26% better than a league-average hitter in 2018, regardless of position (and he’s a catcher, not a DH).
One of the most intriguing elements of Realmuto’s relocation is how it will affect his game offensively. His home-road splits are more than a little intriguing. In Miami, he’s hit .244/.292/.384 for an 87 wRC+. Put him in another ballpark? Those numbers jump to .310/.358/.494 for a 127 wRC+. That’s the same wRC+ that Realmuto’s former teammate Giancarlo Stanton put up last year.
Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park might not be on the same level as Coors Field, but it still ranked as the 12th most hitter-friendly park last year (Miami was 29th, for the record). We’ve seen Realmuto hit well for years now, and he’s moving to a park where he might be able to really hit. It’s probably too early to award another ex-Marlin an MVP (ala Christian Yelich), but it’s pretty obvious that the hitting we’ve seen from Realmuto in Miami isn’t his ceiling, given what he’s done on the road. And he’s still in his prime and he’ll be around for the next two seasons.
So now it’s time to look at the players that are headed the other way, one of whom will replace Realmuto in Miami, 25-year-old catcher Jorge Alfaro. He actually had a pretty respectable year in his first season as the Phillies’ primary catcher, putting up a .262/.324/.407 slashline and doing enough defensively to put up 2.1 fWAR, which landed him in a tie for 8th place amongst all catchers (regardless of PA count).
Alfaro’s 96 wRC+ is perfectly cromulent, given the extreme import of his position defensively. When you consider that the average wRC+ for a catcher last year was 84, you can see that Alfaro was totally and absolutely fine.
Except.... He also had a .406 BABIP, which led all hitters with as many PAs. And he struck out in 36.6% of those PAs, placing him behind only fellow backstop Mike Zunino and Chris Davis, literally the least valuable position player in all of baseball by fWAR (-3.1). So, it’s immediately apparent that, unless Alfaro becomes a hell of a lot more disciplined and somehow continues to avoid defenders’ gloves at an absurd rate, Realmuto is likely to instantly improve Philadelphia’s situation by at least a few wins, and that’s even before you take into account a change of scenery.
The Phillies have Realmuto, and that made Alfaro expendable from their perspective, even if the latter is younger, with more time left before he hits the “free market” that is free agency in today’s MLB. The logic here is perfectly sound from both sides, but that wasn’t going to get the deal done. Sixto Sanchez, who is one of the most highly touted pitching prospects in all of baseball and is now the shiniest prospect in Miami’s system, can claim responsibility for finally ending the Realmuto rumor-mongering.
At all of six-feet tall, the 20-year-old might be considered short in this era, but he hits triple-digits with his fastball, and he already commands an arsenal of secondary pitches well for his age. He projects as a potential front-of-the-rotation arm and has everything that teams are looking for in their pitching prospects. But he’s still a pitching prospect, one who threw less than 50 innings last year. The issue was elbow inflammation, and it wasn’t his first go-around with it, which is never something you want to hear when you’re talking pitchers, much less pitching prospects.
But the ceiling is high with Sanchez, Alfaro has room to improve and the Phillies are also sending LHP prospect Will Stewart, who is more than just a throw in, to Miami. Stewart doesn’t have the raw stuff that Sanchez has, but he could work his way into the rotation, he could end up in the bullpen or he might end up as a footnote in “the Realmuto trade” that propelled the Phillies to back-to-back World Series wins. It turns out that predicting pitching prospects is a difficult business.
Oh, and there’s also $250k of international bonus pool money headed to Miami which should help the bottom-dwelling Miami Flounder in their rebuild and we shan’t not mention it, because it does actually sweeten the deal for the team that’s rebuilding.
At the end of the day, this is trade has the appearance of the old normal. Rebuilding team ships out good/great player with limited service time remaining in exchange for prospect package. There’s a twist, though. Usually the team on the other end of that spectrum is not a team that finished 80-82 the year before, in third place in their division and 10.5 games out of a Wild Card spot and in an extremely competitive division.
The NL East is officially in the running for the most interesting division in all of baseball. With the exception of the Miami Halibut, any single one of the Braves, Mets, Nationals or Phillies could conceivably shut the others out. The Braves took home the honors last year (and fared pretty well in our year-end rankings), but if you wanted to argue that they’re going to finish 4th next year, I’m all ears. We’ll be looking at the overall offseasons of each division soon, but, with the already-noted caveat that the two best free agents are still waiting to find homes, there isn’t a division as a whole that’s going for it in the way that the NL East is right now.
So, the Phillies are in kind of a tough spot, even if they were right behind the Braves in those year-end rankings. They’ve made reasonable or better moves this offseason, and this is another example. Realmuto makes the team better and all he cost was some prospects (even if one of them is one of the better pitching prospects up for grabs). But if they’re truly going for in it, in the division which they reside in, it’s almost unfair to grade this without seeing whether they actually plop down some of the dollars we all know they’re capable of throwing in the pot.
The trade for Jean Segura was a smart move on paper and I will literally cut you if you complain about signing Andrew McCutchen. But there’s clearly still a lot of payroll to go around for the Phillies. They’ve shelled out historically, and we know that they’re capable of doing it now. We know they’re in on Machado. We know they’re in on Harper. Maybe they come away with one of them.
Who knows, maybe they actually get really stupid and come away with both. The deal for Realmuto is a great one, so long as you believe that the Phillies were exactly one Realmuto away from throwing their weight around. But it’s not entirely clear that’s the case. In a vacuum, this deal is a win-win. The Phillies are instantly better and all they had to do was give up prospects, even if one of them was a pretty good one. The Miami Groupers gave up one of the better players in baseball, one that they have very little use for in their current situation. Both teams get an “A” for the deal. But this offseason, like the one before, smells a bit of rotting Marlin flesh, and we have to wait to see what the Phillies do with the little time that’s left before we can really give them credit.