Amid all the $300 million rumors swirling around Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, another name has been a constant source of speculation this hot stove season. This player can't come close to Harper or Machado in terms of star power and name value. Yet due to his own talents and the sudden dearth of stars at his position, this player could deliver comparable value to this year's two top-shelf free agents over the next two seasons.
J.T. Realmuto, it's time for your closeup.
The Marlins catcher has leapt to the top of the list of this winter's trade candidates, particularly with the Mets and Cleveland reportedly tamping down talk of possible deals for Noah Syndergaard and Corey Kluber. The Astros and Dodgers have been cited as potential front-runners for a Realmuto trade. The Braves are in the mix with rumors also pegging the Rays, Padres, and even Reds as possible dance partners. The biggest obstacle for a trade to happen might be the Marlins' insistence that they acquire one or more major leaguers with three or more controllable years of big league service time as part of a Realmuto trade.
All things considered, the Marlins' request -- whether it plays out with controllable major leaguers or top prospects -- looks highly reasonable. While none of Realmuto's line-by-line numbers jumps out at you, his all-around game has made him a hot commodity, as well as the best catcher in baseball.
Playing in 125 games last season, Realmuto batted .277/.340/.484, numbers that work out to 26 percent better than league average after adjusting for pitcher-friendly Marlins Park. Combine those excellent offensive numbers with defensive contributions that rated right at league average according to Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (which counts pitch-framing, pitch-blocking, and throwing stats), and you get a very good catcher.
But context is everything. While Realmuto might not hit like peak Mike Piazza or catch like peak Pudge Rodriguez, his solid bat, playable defense, and durability still added up to better than four Wins Above Replacement (using whichever version of that stat you prefer). Size up Realmuto's all-around numbers both last season and over the past three seasons, and you get a jarring result: He delivered more value than Harper, the guy who might be on the verge of earning more money than any baseball player, ever.
That comparison, more than anything, highlights how Harper stands to become uberwealthy largely due to his potential, and his Ted Williamsian 2015 season. More relevant to Realmuto's trade value is how he fares compared to the rest of the league's catchers. In 2018, he crushed them all.
More than just present-day value, Realmuto's two years of team control offer the potential for more. At 27 years old, he should be right in his prime, still well short of the games-played thresholds that often sap the ability of overworked catchers.
With each win on the open market going for about $9 million, and Realmuto projecting to stick around four Wins Above Replacement in his age-28 and -29 seasons, he'd be worth north of $35 million a year, if teams truly paid players exactly as many dollars as they're worth. Even if that wouldn't happen, Realmuto still looks like a gigantic value, given that his 2019 arbitration award projects around $7 million (and we could then peg his 2020 arbitration award at about twice that 2019 number).
On the skills front, Realmuto has improved in multiple areas over the past three years, most notably with his plate discipline -- pumping up his walk rate while also swinging less often at pitches out of the strike zone and falling into fewer 0-1 counts. Also rising are his power (his .208 Isolated Power mark was a career best, putting him on par with Jose Abreu and ahead of sluggers like Justin Upton) and baserunning value (he stole just three bases in 2018, but does such a great job advancing an extra 90 feet on the basepaths that he delivered more value with his legs than Jose Altuve). It's tough to find a good historical comp for Realmuto, for one simple reason: Very few catchers have so few weaknesses in their game.