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The unlikely (impossible) road to JT Realmuto

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What needs to happen for the Cards to sign Realmuto?

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals - Game One Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

I’m annoyed. Last year, when I was looking at future free agents, I discovered that this current free agent market was not great and that there were limited opportunities to sign a free agent. With one exception: J.T. Realmuto. Realmuto was just about the only player on the market that appealed to me. I don’t like George Springer much because of his age, I don’t like Trevor Bauer much because it’s Trevor Bauer, and I wasn’t really buying Marcus Semien’s career year. The rest seemed of the bargain hunting or Dexter Fowler variety, where i simply didn’t want to sign a league average-adjacent player.

And I’m annoyed because when I discovered my desire to sign Realmuto, I had planned to write an article campaigning for the Cards to sign him. I have wanted to write this article for literally a year, because it didn’t necessarily make much sense to write it before he officially became a free agent. And then the Cardinals rejected Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million option and it felt so much sillier to write this. I have never realistically thought the Cardinals were ever going to go after Realmuto, but something about the rejection of the option just made it feel especially pointless.

But who am I to let a little thing called reality get in the way? It’s not like the Cardinals were going to sign Realmuto with no pandemic. And I was 100 percent going to write that article if it were a normal offseason. So seriously what the hell? I’m going to write it anyway.

Before I was hammered with the realities of the free agency after a shortened season and with a future season with presumably a limited number of fans, I thought it was possible to re-sign both Yadier Molina and Realmuto. In theory anyway. I knew it wasn’t going to actually happen, but that you could theoretically make it work. This point was supported by the probable inclusion of the DH, which is no longer probable and which would now require Molina to be in a purely backup role, which is never going to happen. Not to mention the money reason it won’t happen.

So clearly Realmuto and Molina can’t happen together, which puts me in a bit of an awkward spot. So I won’t outright root for the Cardinals to not sign Yadi. No, my confidence in the Cardinals never ever being a realistic candidate for Realmuto means I can root for the Cardinals to sign Yadi. But let’s for a moment, entertain the possibility that Yadi talks break down. One of the 30 teams is willing to pay him over $10 million and the Cardinals figure they don’t want to be on the hook for that.

But now they’re faced with the fact that they have let a Cardinals legend go over money, no matter how justified they are in letting him go. Most Cardinals fans wouldn’t see that. Just about the only thing they could do after letting Molina leave and Wong leave, and I wouldn’t be optimistic about Adam Wainwright in this scenario either, is to sign an elite free agent. An elite free agent, who I must say, is actually quite a bit better than Yadi right now.

It is my theory that the Cardinals offseason plan is to sign Molina, Wainwright and a third guy for something in the range of what would have been Wong’s 2021 salary, which was $12.5 million. Let’s pretend the budget is $15 million. Now, I’ll get into the specifics of his contract later, but it really wouldn’t be that difficult with some creative accounting and deferrals to only pay Realmuto $15 million in 2021.

I guess I should make the case for Realmuto. For the last four seasons - three and two months is more accurate I suppose - Realmuto has been the best catcher in baseball. Yasmani Grandal is a close second in fWAR among catchers, and behind the two of them, nobody is particularly close. Since 2017, Realmuto has batted .276/.335/.477 with a 114 wRC+. With an average of 568 PAs per season (in the full seasons), Realmuto has averaged 22 HRs and 5 WAR.

His bat is good, but if you can’t tell, he’s not a 5 WAR player only because of his bat. In the same timeframe and with the same average playing time, he has been a +9.7 catcher on defense. I am aware there are probably things Yadi does that might not be reflected in the numbers, but believe it or not, Realmuto would represent a defensive upgrade. Not against Yadi in his prime, but against Yadi now. And just for good measure, he’s a clear positive on the basepaths. He has averaged 7 steals per 568 PAs with just under 2 caught stealing. He has been a +4.1 BSR per 568 PAs. So good hitter, good fielder, good baserunner.

What do the numbers say for the future? Well ZiPS, it must be said, does not currently have future projections that take 2020 into account. So the numbers on Fangraphs are based on pre-2020 data. Nonetheless, right now it has him as a 4.2 fWAR player for 2021 and 3.6 fWAR player in 2022. He had a 125 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR in 47 games last year, so I can’t imagine those numbers are going down with his 2020. Since he was a 114 wRC+ hitter the last four years including his 2020, they may actually go up.

Much like I did for Springer, I’ll post two different contracts: the 4 and the 5 year contract. Most of us would prefer 4 years, but it seems like with an elite free agent, you have to go 5 years. So I’ll present the better outcome, and the outcome you’d live with so that you can have an elite free agent. With those projections in mind and ignoring the economic realities of the pandemic, here are the two possible deals:

4 years, $121.5 million

5 years, $140.4 million

That pretends that the cost of a win in free agency will be $9 million, which will definitely not happen. But of course, things work differently for elite free agents. In the depressed free agent markets of the past couple years, the elite guys still got paid. So it would be foolish to pretend Realmuto won’t get paid, even though he absolutely might end up getting screwed too. But we’re living in a reality where the Cardinals have a shot at him, so let’s say he instead gets $7 million per win, which I pulled out of a hat.

4 years, $94.5 million

5 years, $109.2 million

For the purposes of a nice, satisfying number, we’re going to say 4 years, $100 million. And I’ll round up to 5 years, $115 million for a similar reason. Let’s say the Cardinals budget to spend is $15 million. You know when I said it would be fairly easy to only spend $15 million on Realmuto for 2021? Well, he’s just $8 million over budget in the 5 year deal. The Cardinals will have a shocking amount of money coming off the books for 2022, so you can just slide that $8 or $10 million in there, or maybe just give him a big bonus at the start of 2022. You could have a really goofy looking contract such as 2021: $15 million; 2022: $40 million; 2023-2025: $20 million.

I know assuming a player will accept now to accept more later is a faulty assumption. But if it’s going to work in any offseason, it’s this one. And seriously their 2022 budget is just freakishly low right now. They can raise that 2022 salary REAL HIGH and still have room to sign another elite free agent. Assuming salaries return to normal anyway, which I’ll admit is a famous last words type of assumption.

In a video game, where you can ignore sentimentality, this is absolutely what should happen. But this is not a video game and things are more complicated than that. I’m presenting an alternate scenario, a scenario where you believe the rumors about Molina going elsewhere (I do not believe them). This would be a good pivot move, a necessary step to win back the fans.

Now obviously, there’s too may ifs in this post for this to happen. If Molina leaves for elsewhere. If Bill Dewitt signs off on signing Realmuto. If the offers put in this post are truly the best offers. If Realmuto is willing to accept a lower salary in his first year. So it’s clearly not going to happen. But well, I thought of this last year, he’s a free agent, and instead of my conventional free agent spotlight post for Realmuto, I thought I’d present an alternate reality instead.