Less than a week from the opening of the first spring training camps across Arizona and Florida, one of the major remaining personnel matters of the winter — the sort that had been prominently rumored for weeks going on months — was finally consummated. And like many of the larger moves of this curious, still-unfolding offseason, it resulted in a National League East contender getting considerably stronger.
The fact that Thursday’s news was “merely” the Philadelphia Phillies prying away all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins — and not the signing of one of the prized assets of the free agent market, Bryce Harper or Manny Machado — could wind up being a simple matter of timing. Because plenty of folks in baseball still expect the Phillies to come away with one of those 26-year-old superstars before opening day.
Either way, or neither way, this winter has seen the NL East turn into a massive free-for-all between four rival teams — the Phillies, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets and Washington Nationals — that, at least on paper, appear destined to stage an epic, four-way battle for the division title this summer and fall.
The Phillies made their latest splash without having to be “a little bit stupid” in their spending — owner John Middleton’s famous words at the outset of the offseason — unless you count the cost they gave up in talent for Realmuto: catcher Jorge Alfaro, top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez and minor league left-hander Will Stewart. The Phillies also reportedly kicked in some international bonus-slot money.
In exchange, the Phillies acquired, in Realmuto, arguably the best young all-around catcher in the game, a 27-year-old star who hit 21 homers and slugged .484 for the Marlins in 2018, earning an all-star nod and the Silver Slugger award as the league’s top-hitting catcher.
“I think J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “So the upgrade is significant.”
The Marlins – in the later stages of a teardown that has seen them part with Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna in the past 14 months – had been shopping Realmuto all winter, and a half-dozen or more teams were linked to him at various points. Understandably, the Marlins were holding out for each potential suitor’s best prospect, and then some. (The Washington Nationals, at various points, could have had Realmuto but refused to part with outfielder Victor Robles.) It was the Phillies’ inclusion of Sanchez, a six-foot right-hander rated the 27th-best prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, that ultimately got Thursday’s deal done.
And now, step back and consider all the talent that has migrated to the NL East this winter (or, in the case of Realmuto, went from a bottom-feeder to a contender within the same division):
Josh Donaldson: The 2015 American League MVP, dogged by injuries the past two seasons, slipped to the defending NL East champion Braves on a one-year, $23 million contract. The Braves also signed veteran catcher Brian McCann and re-signed outfielder Nick Markakis, a first-time all-star in 2018.
Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz: The eight-time all-star second baseman and the brilliant, all-star closer came to the Mets in a blockbuster trade with Seattle in November, which jump-started a busy winter for a franchise coming off a 77-85, fourth-place finish in 2018. They also added catcher Wilson Ramos, relievers Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson and infielder Jed Lowrie via free agency.
Patrick Corbin: The 29-year-old lefty, arguably the top pitcher on the free agent market, went to the Nationals on a six-year, $140 million deal, part of an aggressive offseason strategy from general manager Mike Rizzo that also brought catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, second baseman Brian Dozier and relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to Washington.
Realmuto: He becomes the fourth significant piece acquired by the Phillies this winter, joining shortstop jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson.
In this age of teardowns and tanking, with a dozen or more teams essentially sitting out this winter’s high-end talent market, to have four teams with designs on a title within the same division, and to see each of them moving aggressively to achieve it, is extraordinary.
Of the four, the Phillies arguably had the farthest to go. Their 80-82 record last year — good for a third-place finish, 10 games behind the division-winning Braves — included an ugly 16-33 finish over the season’s final two months.
The Phillies’ winter began with Middleton, their owner, telling USA Today he may be “a little bit stupid” with his free agent spending this winter, and it ended — well, there’s a good chance it hasn’t ended at all.
Even as the Harper and Machado sweepstakes lurch into their fourth months — with many of the usual, big-money suspects (Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs) apparently taking a pass, and the void filled with some dark horses and mystery teams (Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants) — much of the industry takes it as an inevitability that the Phillies will walk away with one of them.
“This doesn’t take us out of the free agent market by any stretch,” Klentak said Thursday. “This is another acquisition that demonstrates our commitment to winning — and will be attractive to other free agents.”
The Phillies have already met with Machado, in Philadelphia, and with Harper, in Las Vegas, and given their resources and the opportunity they see in a wide-open division, the only questions are which player they prefer and how stupid they are willing to get to acquire him.