Before the nightmare Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sagas, the Marlins and J.T. Realmuto dominated headlines early in the offseason. You may or may not be familiar with the Marlins’ laundry list of unreasonable demands. One was infamously asking the Dodgers for Cody Bellinger–plus prospects. Another is some sort of combination of Amed Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto of the Mets.
Unfortunately for the Marlins, the teams involved figured out something valuable; they have money. All of a sudden, names were moving and coming off the board. Robinson Chirinos went to the Astros. The Angels brought in Jonathan Lucroy. Wilson Ramos signed with the Mets. Brian McCann chose to reunite with the Braves. Yasmani Grandal, a somewhat comparable player to Realmuto, signed with the Brewers. Similar to the Braves, the Dodgers brought back long-time catcher Russell Martin. To add fuel to the fire, the Red Sox are still almost guaranteed to move one of their three catchers, none of which will cost nearly as much to acquire as Realmuto.
The market, strangely, was flooded with quality catcher options, most of which did not cost very much in the way of cash or prospect capital. From the Marlins’ perspective, you can understand why the asking price is so high. The early returns on last offseason’s fire sale have not been good so far, especially after Christian Yelich finally found his “next level” in Milwaukee after years of tantalizing potential. Asking for young, established stars or some of the best prospects in the game is understandable for an elite player at a very weak position. What isn’t understandable, is how the Marlins allowed the situation to become this bad.
All of the players the Marlins traded last offseason were quality players, with the exception of maybe Dee Gordon. The return for Yelich was actually very fair at the time, from my perspective as well as many others. And while the return for Stanton disappointed many Marlins fans and appeared to be “gifted” to the Yankees by some, the return was also very fair. Every team, including the Marlins, knew Stanton had to be traded. Coming into a deal with no leverage is not a good place to start, and the deal still looks generally fine to me, especially with the enormous amount of risk the Yankees took on.
However, there was one player, Marcell Ozuna, who everyone knew the Marlins got fleeced for. The return was Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra, Zac Gallen, and Daniel Castano. The first two pieces were the main pieces in Alcantara and Sierra, with Gallen being ranked as a 40+ FV by FanGraphs and Castano being organizational depth. Alcantara is likely headed for relief, and Sierra just put up -1.5 WAR and a wRC+ of 19 in 156 plate appearances. To say the Marlins got burned by this deal would be an extreme understatement. But this poor return, coupled with the brutal return on investments from the other deals, has made the Marlins extremely paranoid sellers.
Consider this. With the complicated position the Marlins were in, they may have actually done a decent job, all things considered. Again, only the Ozuna deal was glaringly bad at the time. One could say they actually got the process right for the most part. But the results so far have been bad. The Marlins want J.T. Realmuto to be worth his own value, plus an extreme price of acquisition to try to make up for last offseason’s deals. But the Mets didn’t make a bad deal with the Marlins. Neither did the Dodgers. Or the Astros. All of these teams are valuing J.T. Realmuto as J.T. Realmuto. The Marlins are valuing J.T. Realmuto as J.T. Realmuto and the missed value from all of the various deals from last offseason. The Marlins have probably received some very fair offers for Realmuto. However, this also calls into question just how much Realmuto is actually worth.
I think it’s fair to say Realmuto can be relied upon to be a 4 WAR catcher for the next two years. He’s a very good defender, a remarkable athlete, and one of the best offensive players at the position, putting up an excellent 126 wRC+ last year. He does, however, have something somewhat concerning in his profile.
In 2016, Realmuto was ranked 97th overall in framing runs at -8.5. In 2017 he was substantially better, tied at 21st overall with 5.3 framing runs. In 2018 he ended up back in the doldrums, tied at 68th overall with -0.4 framing runs. This may not seem like too big of a deal given the three different results, but it is significant. Like WAR, framing runs are an easily accumulated stat as a full-time player. Earning a strike is more of a positive value than a ball is a negative value, and with 7,000+ opportunities you’d almost always expect a full-time player to end up positive.
While Realmuto is a good defender in every other aspect, the framing is concerning. Teams have quickly identified this as a valuable skill. If you’re wondering why the Yankees are hesitant to move Gary Sanchez from catcher to designated hitter or first base, framing is your answer. It doesn’t matter that he can look inadequate in other aspects. Framing is much easier to measure, and teams will always place more value in what they can measure than what they can’t.
They can also measure something else. Remember how I’ve been referring to Realmuto as a good defender? Well, if you look at FanGraphs’ “Def” stat, he certainly looks like a good defender. However, DRS tells a very different story.
Like me, you’re probably wondering what the disparity is in how these are measured. Well, “Def” is fielding runs + positional adjustment. What this means is, compared to every player at every position, Realmuto is a very good defender. And it makes sense; catcher is a rather difficult position. But DRS is measured in relation to everyone else at your position. Is Realmuto a good defender? Yes. Is he a good defender compared to other catchers? No.
With how WAR is calculated, Realmuto gets credit for being a catcher, even though he’s not a particularly good one. However, if you take an even more dispassionate look and value his DRS and framing more than his positional adjustment, you have to remove his value somewhere. That’s probably something around a win somewhere over the course of the year. With enough catchers on both the trade market and in free agency, teams had the luxury of being able to compare and contrast. Unfortunately for J.T. Realmuto and the Marlins, when everyone is a catcher, nobody gets the benefit of positional adjustment.
Yasmani Grandal was mentioned earlier as a comparable player to Realmuto. Without getting too explicitly into the numbers, Grandal is an above-average catcher offensively, putting up a 125 wRC+ last year and should generally be a lock to be around a 115 wRC+ (career 117). DRS loves him, as well as the framing numbers. Grandal is two and a half years older than Realmuto, which is something to be considered. Realmuto is certainly flashier and more consistent at the plate, something Grandal has struggled with, especially in the last two postseasons.
Grandal only got a one year deal (with a mutual option) for $18.25 million. This was shocking, considering Grandal was probably the fourth best player on the market and easily one of the top three players at his position. While he, deservedly, received a lot of flack for turning down a four-year, $60 million deal from the Mets, it still seemed like a relative pittance compared to what he’s actually worth. With DRS and framing runs considered, Grandal might actually be couple more wins valuable than what WAR gives him.
The brainstorming process for this article began when I tried to think of what Realmuto would get on the open market if he were a free agent this offseason. He’ll be twenty-eight years old on Opening Day, compared to Grandal’s thirty. But truthfully, the difference between the offer Grandal received and the hypothetical offer Realmuto would receive is likely just an extra year. In this “new” free agent market, it’s been especially punishing towards position players, and I don’t think Realmuto would be an exception. I don’t know if he cracks $80 million if he were made a free agent this offseason. For the hell of it, I’ll use Russell Martin’s five-year, $82 million deal from 2014 as Realmuto’s hypothetical contract.
At about $16 million a year, two years of Realmuto would be worth ~$32 million to a team, and on a two-year deal for Realmuto I could see teams signing him to something like $36 million. Obviously this is a bit different since he’d be a hypothetical free agent and easier to acquire. But that’s the question teams have been asking themselves all offseason since, generally, teams had the option of signing a free agent, or trading for Realmuto. Given that free agents have signed with teams, it seems to be the better move to invest in free agency. Realmuto is only as valuable as he would be as a free agent. Teams are looking to trade for what Realmuto would get on the open market, since they’ve had the option of diving into free agency instead all offseason.
Most of the options have been snatched up, so let’s move the price of acquisition up a little bit, and say he’s worth something like $40 million in prospects. You’re looking at a trade centered around a 55 FV pitcher, or 50 FV hitter, with another 45 pitcher or hitter included as well. This seems entirely reasonable for Realmuto. It’s far off the Marlins’ ask of a trade likely centered around a 65 FV prospect or a young established bat, but if they get an offer like this they should accept it quickly. Unfortunately, they’ve likely already gotten an offer like this and turned it down, but I still have confidence they’ll be able to return some good value for him.
It’s understandable why the Marlins want a lot for Realmuto. Even if he’s not as valuable as he looks on the surface, he’s still a very good player. Unfortunately the timing of the market, as well as the tastes and preferences, are shifting away from what Realmuto appears to be. But the “mistakes” from last offseason can’t be solved with one trade. It was a good process, just not good results. This is a bad process, and may very well lead to bad results. They still have the luxury of likely being able to choose from the tiers I picked out, but time is running out. It’s a complicated situation and may end up being somewhat anticlimactic. The only mistake the Marlins could make here is if Realmuto is still on the roster come Opening Day.