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J.T. Realmuto is the best free agent on the market

In my mind, Realmuto is the best free agent on the market. Here’s why.

MLB: New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

While there’s no great way to adequately describe the nature of time in 2020, here’s just a quick reminder of something that feels so distant in the past but really wasn’t. The Dodgers won the World Series just 13 days ago, but the mountain of news in the time since has blurred the recency of their Game 6 victory.

However, because of that win, we’re back in offseason mode after a short 2020 season. With that, it’s time to analyze what will be an interesting free agent market, surely to be shaken — like everything else — by the COVID-19 pandemic. (We’ve already seen examples of this.) In my mind, the best available option is none other than J.T. Realmuto, who spent the last two seasons catching in Philadelphia and firmly solidifying his status as the best backstop in the major leagues.

In August, I wrote here about Realmuto’s potential contract. The story is simple: Realmuto’s unique skillset, combined with the all-important skill of durability (“there’s no better ability than availability”), makes him a target over which nearly every team should be gushing. There were 29 teams that did not have Realmuto on their roster last season; he produced as much or more WAR than the entire catching staffs of 23 of them. If there’s one player that can turn a position group from a weakness to a strength, it’s Realmuto and your catching.

A blockbuster trade brought Realmuto to the Phillies: In February 2019, the Marlins sent the already-solid catcher to Philadelphia in exchange for Jorge Alfaro, Sixto Sanchez, and Will Stewart. At the time, I wrote that the Phillies’ decision to make the trade represented an “advantageous investment,” though I centered much of my analysis around the fact that I expected Philly to land either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, neither of whom had signed by this point.

The Phillies later signed Harper, and contention very much seemed to be in order. However, the team’s collapses in both 2019 and 2020, resulting in two more no-better-than-.500 finishes, has thrown a wrench into their plans going forward. Harper, who has been very vocal about the team needing to re-sign Realmuto, may not get his wish, as team president Andy MacPhail indicated in late-October that “We just weren’t able to find anything approaching common ground” with Realmuto regarding an extension.

Nonetheless, MacPhail did express some cautious optimism about the team’s chances to re-sign him.

“There are two things that we’ve got going for us,” he said. The first is that I think he enjoyed his time here and obviously, we want him back. So I think those two things give you some measure of hope. In any offseason, there are just an amazing amount of variables and you can just multiply that exponentially this offseason. But yeah, as long as the player enjoyed his time here and the team has a legitimate interest in bringing him back, there’s that possibility.”

If Realmuto is not donning the red and white pinstripes next season, a host of other suitors — many of which are in the NL East — could be targeting him. The Mets, under the new ownership of Steve Cohen, could spend big this offseason, given his estimated $14.6 billion net worth. They’ve already been tied to Realmuto, as have another fellow NL East rival: the Nationals, who may be looking to retool after an underwhelming title-defense attempt that saw them finish tied for last place.

Outside of the NL East, the Angels or Yankees could also make sense as suitors for Realmuto. Really, most teams should be involved, but given the financial constraints posed on front offices, it seems like the sweepstakes may be limited to big market contention hopefuls.

That very much won’t preclude Realmuto from securing a big-time payday, however. Though the Phillies failed to end their playoff drought — which is now the second-longest in baseball, by the way — with him in the fold, Realmuto’s game reached another level in Philadelphia. Over his two seasons there, Realmuto slashed .273/.333/.492 over 788 plate appearances, posting a 112 wRC+. This offensive output was coupled with outstanding defense behind the plate, and his 7.4 WAR over the last two seasons put most other catchers in the dust:

Past production is only past production, but there is no reason to think that Realmuto’s short-term output will be anything less than sterling. Going more under the hood, his offensive numbers are backed up by great underlying statistics: his barrel rate jumped by nearly five points year-over-year, and he walked more than at any other point over his career. This did come with a bit more swing-and-miss, but considering the 16 percent increase in overall offensive output, the tradeoff was more than worth it.

An added bonus comes in the form of his base running: Realmuto’s 28.2 feet/second sprint speed was the best among all catchers and ranked in the 84th percentile overall. Additionally, he’s been worth 15.6 base running runs over his career, yet his prowess on the bases remains an unheralded part of Realmuto game, even though it separates himself from the pack even more clearly:

Realmuto is so different from all other catchers — I referred to him as a “unicorn” in my August piece — that he’s likely to command quite a hefty salary in free agency. The median crowdsource at FanGraphs pegged him for five-years, $110 million; Craig Edwards came in at six years for $140 million; and the median among all contract prognosticators was five-years, $120 million. In my August piece, I wrote that Realmuto could receive “well over $100 million,” and if I had to make a guess now, I’d go with five-years, $135 million. This would stick with the median projection in terms of years but going a tad above in terms of money.

No matter how you slice it, Realmuto is one of the most complete players in the game, and even in a COVID-19-recession-type offseason, he’s going to get paid like it. Even in a year of uncertainties, this seems like one thing we can be pretty certain about.

Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.