jt-realmuto-3.png
Getty Images

By any measure, the 2020 season was a massive disappointment for the Philadelphia Phillies. The club went 28-32 in Joe Girardi's first year at the helm -- the Phillies have not had a winning season since 2011, if you can believe that -- and they missed the expanded postseason by a single game. All they had to do to reach the postseason was go 2-6 in their final eight games rather than 1-7, but apparently that was too much to ask.

"That is a severe disappointment to me," team president Andy MacPhail told reporters, including MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, last month when asked about having a losing record in 2020. "In the end, if you look at the directory, it's John Middleton -- that's ownership -- then it's me. I'm ultimately responsible for the management of the franchise on the baseball and the business side. So that is a great source of disappointment to me that by this time we hadn't done better than we did." 

Soon after the season Matt Klentak stepped down as general manager -- "While Matt made many significant contributions to the organization, we did not accomplish our goal of playing baseball in October," Middleton said at the time -- and was reassigned to another position in the organization. Assistant general manager Ned Rice has served as interim general manager since Klentak's resignation, with MacPhail overseeing baseball operations.

The Phillies have the core of a contender -- they scored the fifth most runs per game (5.10) this past season and have an enviable 1-2 punch atop the rotation in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler -- and will spend the offseason improving the margins of the roster, adding depth to the organization, and trying to re-sign one monumentally important free agent. Here are four major questions the Phillies are facing this winter.

1. What's going on with the GM search?

As noted, Klentak stepped down in October and Rice has been serving as interim general manager since. The club doesn't seem to be in a rush to replace Klentak on a permanent basis which is ... unusual. MacPhail is expected to leave the team when his contract expires after next season, possibly even sooner than that, so the front office is currently in lame duck status. MacPhail is the head honcho and Rice is handing the day-to-day duties. 

"Who's going to want to uproot in the middle of a pandemic?" MacPhail told Zolecki. "I could see (the general manager search) going longer. Certainly, through until '21, when you have a little more clarity with what it is we're facing. I just try to underscore this, you want the next regime to do well. You want to put them in a position to succeed. In my estimation, if you brought somebody in here right now with a limited capacity that they could affect positive change, it's just borderline not fair to them."

That's thoughtful, except Kim Ng left the commissioner's office to become Marlins general manager and Perry Minasian left the Braves to become Angels general manager. Soon someone will leave their current team to join the Mets front office. No one wants to uproot in the middle of a pandemic, but clearly, people are willing to do it. There are only 30 general manager jobs in baseball and when they become available, people will jump at them, pandemic or no pandemic. 

The Phillies have reportedly reached out to Theo Epstein, who is reportedly not interested. Still, it doesn't hurt to ask if you're the Phillies. The NL East rival Mets and new owner Steve Cohen are currently searching for a new baseball operations head, so there is competition for the game's brightest front office minds. And yet, the Phillies seem content to sit on the sidelines. It is unusual, to say the least.

For now, MacPhail is a veteran executive capable of leading a baseball operations department, and Rice is qualified to run the day-to-day stuff. The Phillies are in good hands. That said, the Phillies should figure this out sooner rather than later, so the next general manager can begin to build the team in his image, and continue to move them on a path to contention. The club is currently content to kick that can down the road. It's not ideal.

2. How much do they have to spend anyway?

During their championship window from 2007-11, the Phillies regularly ran payrolls that ranked among the highest in the sport, and now that the rebuild is over, they are again spending at the level. Their $208 million projected full season payroll was fifth-highest in the sport in 2020. Even with the pandemic, is not unreasonable to expect them to spend to a similar level in 2021.

The 2021 luxury tax threshold is $210 million. Here's what the Phillies already have on the books going into next season:


Luxury tax payroll

Guaranteed contracts (6 players)

$94.9 million

Arbitration-eligibles (6 players) (via MLB Trade Rumors)

$18.3 million

Pre-arbitration players to fill out 26-man roster (14 players)

$8.5 million (estimated)

Rest of 40-man roster

$2 million (estimated)

Player benefits

$15.5 million

Total$139.2 million

Surprised the Phillies have so little money on the books, relatively speaking? I was when I ranked each team by their 2021 payroll situation back in July. Nola and Jean Segura are signed affordably, Wheeler's contract is fair value, and even Bryce Harper's mega-deal is only -- "only" -- the 16th-highest average annual salary in the game. Philadelphia's payroll is in good shape.

If the Phillies spend to the $210 million luxury tax threshold next season, they have about $70 million to play with this offseason. Granted, they have to set some money aside for injury call-ups and the trade deadline, but that's an awful lot of cash to play with. They are poised to make a big splash or two this winter, or spend big to retain one of their own. Speaking of ...

3. What happens if Realmuto leaves?

Panic, riots, greased street poles, snowballs thrown at Santa Claus, etc. etc. In all seriousness, losing J.T. Realmuto would be a devastating blow to the Phillies, and Sixto Sanchez emerging as an impact starter for the NL East rival Marlins only pours salt in the wound. Realmuto is the best all-around catcher in baseball and that makes him irreplaceable. The free agent catching options after him are pretty weak too. Here are the top free agent catchers by projected 2021 WAR (via FanGraphs):

  1. J.T. Realmuto: 4.0 WAR
  2. Yadier Molina: 1.4 WAR
  3. Wilson Ramos: 1.2 WAR
  4. Mike Zunino: 1.1 WAR
  5. Several tied at 1.0 WAR

Here's the thing: I think there are perfectly valid reasons to avoid a long-term contract with Realmuto. He turns 30 in March, he's had leg issues the last two years (meniscus in 2019, hip in 2020), and he's endured a huge workload the last six years (second most innings caught since 2015). Joe Mauer and Buster Posey were better versions of Realmuto and both were done as elite players at age 31. Realmuto's not far from the age where catchers, even great ones, turn into pumpkins.

That said, the Phillies are very much a win-now team, and re-signing Realmuto to improve your short-term chances while knowing you'll have to live with some ugly years later on is a viable strategy. Contenders make similar moves all the time. Realmuto is an all-around impact player at the most demanding position on the field, and by all indications the Phillies will pursue him aggressively this offseason. If he leaves, it won't be because Philadelphia didn't try.

"There are two things we've got going for us," MacPhail told Zolecki. "The first is 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 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 is that possibility."

For argument's sake, let's say Realmuto does sign elsewhere. What do the Phillies do then? They have three options:

  1. Replace him internally with Andrew Knapp and prospect Rafael Marchan.
  2. Sign a free agent.
  3. Make a trade.

Knapp had the season of his life in 2020 and is an established backup and there's nothing wrong with that. Every team needs a backup. Marchan is among the team's better prospects and he slugged his first ever home run -- yes, his first ever -- in his three-game MLB debut this past season. He's barely played above Single-A, however, and could use more time in the minors. Sticking with internal options to replace Realmuto is a non-option, really.

The free agent market behind Realmuto isn't great. I'll believe Molina will leave the Cardinals when I see it, meaning the Phillies would have to sort through free agents like Zunino, Jason Castro, James McCann, and Tyler Flowers. The non-tender deadline could send a few more catchers into free agency (Austin Hedges? Gary Sanchez?). Pairing the switch-hitting Knapp with the lefty-hitting Castro would be a sensible yet underwhelming catcher platoon. Certainly a huge step down from Realmuto.

The trade market is much more interesting and one name jumps out: Willson Contreras. The Cubs are expected to cut payroll and shake up their core this offseason, and Contreras is projected to earn $6 million or so as an arbitration-eligible player in 2021. He is under team control through 2022, so he's not a one-year addition either. Contreras, 28, is not the defender Realmuto is (few are), but he has power and he plays with verve, and is a comfortably above-average big-league catcher.

Because the Phillies have room to spend and the Cubs are in cost-cutting mode, what about taking on Craig Kimbrel to lower the prospect cost? Kimbrel is owed $17 million in 2021 ($16 million salary plus the $1 million buyout of his 2022 option) and the Cubs would surely love to get out from under that. Taking on Kimbrel and his salary to give up lesser prospects to get Contreras would be a nifty move. It's a smart way Philadelphia could flex its financial muscle.

Other catcher trade candidates include Sanchez (if he's not non-tendered), Omar Narvaez (if he's not non-tendered), Tom Murphy, Pedro Severino, and Tony Wolters. Quality catchers are in short supply, you may have noticed. With a win-now roster and a core that is in its prime now (but might not be in three years), the Phillies should just pony up the money to re-sign Realmuto. They have the payroll space and he is a star at a premium position. If he leaves, the options to replace him aren't all that appealing.

4. How do they fix the bullpen?

It was a short and unusual season, no doubt, but Philadelphia's bullpen was historically awful in 2020. It was so bad that if they had a bunch of relievers with an ERA in the 5s in their bullpen, it would've represented a massive upgrade. Here are the worst bullpen ERAs in baseball history:

  1. 1930 Phillies: 8.01 ERA
  2. 2020 Phillies: 7.06 ERA
  3. 1936 Browns: 7.01 ERA
  4. 1950 Browns: 6.81 ERA
  5. 2020 Rockies: 6.77 ERA

Yikes, Rockies. Anyway, yeah, the Phillies had a dreadful bullpen in 2020, and seeing how they missed the postseason by one stinkin' game, it's not hard to believe that they would've made it with a bullpen that was merely bad rather than horrible. Instead, it was catastrophically bad, even after the midseason additions of Heath Hembree, David Phelps, and Brandon Workman. Those three combined to allow 35 runs in 30 innings with the Phillies. Goodness.

The good news: Philadelphia's bullpen can't possibly be that bad again next year. At least I don't think it can. Fixing a bullpen is not easy and it's never as simple as throwing money at free agents. Case in point: David Robertson. Robertson was one of the best and most durable relievers in baseball from 2009-18, so the Phillies gave him a two-year contract, then he blew out his elbow after 6 2/3 poor innings and needed Tommy John surgery. Even the best relievers can be unpredictable.

Here's what Philadelphia's bullpen looks like at this very moment:

That would be the bullpen if the season started today, which it does not. The Phillies have lots of time to figure this out. As usual, free agency offers relievers of all shapes and sizes. There are lockdown closers (Brad Hand, Liam Hendriks, etc.), solid middle relievers (Trevor May, Justin Wilson, etc.), and interesting bounce-back candidates (Keone Kela, Kirby Yates, etc.). The expected glut of non-tenders will surely add other bullpen options to the free agent pool.

I've already mentioned Kimbrel and his pricey contract as a trade candidate. Josh Hader figures to again be a popular name in trade rumors this winter. The Yankees would likely part with Adam Ottavino to unload his $9 million salary. Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, Red Sox righty Matt Barnes, Angels righty Hansel Robles, and Rangers righty Rafael Montero are among the many other relievers who could be made available in trades this offseason.

When trying to rebuild a bullpen, the single best thing you can do is give yourself options. Don't count on one or two big name free agents to fix things. Emphasize depth, particularly live arms who can be optioned to the minors and shuttled back and forth as necessary. The Mets gave hard-throwing righty Sam McWilliams a major-league contract over the weekend for that reason. He has a big arm and can be optioned down to Triple-A easily.

The Phillies do have money to play with this offseason, even if they re-sign Realmuto, so by all means, go sign a Hand or Hendriks, or trade for Kimbrel. Just because relievers are hard to predict doesn't mean you should never pay big for them. The most important thing is bringing in multiple pieces so guys like Arano and Quezada are pushed down the depth chart and not counted on as the first line of defense. Having an effective bullpen takes a village.