J.T. Realmuto gives the Phillies a significant upgrade, but the suddenly stacked NL East is still wide open
The NL East has been the most exciting division this winter -- will that be true in the summer?
The Philadelphia Phillies for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, heightening an intra-division hot stove battle that could make the NL East the most compelling division in baseball this season.
The trade sends promising young catcher Jorge Alfaro, top Phillies pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, 21-year-old Single-A left-hander Will Stewart, and an international bonus slot to the Marlins in exchange for Realmuto. The move come after weeks of rumors surrounding the 27-year-old backstop, including previously reported interest from division rivals Washington, Atlanta, and New York.
Last month, I wrote about how catcher has become a wasteland in today's game, with so many teams carrying virtual black holes at that position -- making Realmuto's strong all-around game stand out even more.
The Phillies were not one of those catcher-needy teams. Alfaro batted a playable .262/.324/.407 in his first full season behind the plate, right around league-average production for any position, let alone catcher. Still, the 25-year-old receiver's big throwing arm and impressive power (both graded as 70 out of 80 by Fangraphs on the prospect tools scale) have yet to materialize, with Alfaro's league-leading passed-ball total and below-average caught-stealing rate painting a less rosy picture of his defense.
Meanwhile, Realmuto batted a career-best .277/.340/.484, numbers that were 26 percent better than league average on a park-adjusted basis. Even adjusting for the offense-snuffing effects of Marlins Park might be underestimating his offensive potential, given that's a career .309/.356/.492 hitter on the road, but just .245/.294/.384 at home. Add in Realmuto's league-average defense (as measured by Baseball Prospectus' all-encompassing Fielding Runs Above Average) and elite baserunning skill for a catcher and the Phillies could have themselves a three-win upgrade in 2019.
That upgrade comes at a steep price, however. In exchange for two years of club control over Realmuto, the Phillies gave up five years of Alfaro, plus some significant pitching upside. The 20-year-old Sanchez was rated the 13th-best prospect in the game this year by Baseball America. He's touched 101 mph with his fastball, wields a wipeout changeup, and is coming off a season in which he struck out a batter an inning and allowed just one home run in eight starts at High-A Clearwater, a remarkable feat for a pitcher in his age-19 season. Meanwhile Stewart is a former 20th-round pick who lacks Sanchez's pedigree, but he flashed a 2.06 ERA in 20 Sally League starts last season.
Baseball Prospectus released its PECOTA projections on Thursday, and they paint the picture of a division that's begging to be taken by whichever team is willing to shake off a malaise-filled winter and make a real splash on the free-agent market. Before the Realmuto deal, PECOTA projected a gap of just five games between the projected division-leading Nationals and Mets(!) and the Phillies and Braves a rung lower. Though we haven't heard much in the way of specifics, the Nats and Phillies have come up often enough in Bryce Harper-related rumors that the race for his services (and NL East supremacy) may well come down to those two teams.
As for the Marlins, this says it all. A team that once employed the best outfield in baseball and the best catcher in baseball has traded away all of the above. The Realmuto trade, which gave the Marlins more than they got in the deals for Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, gives the team hope to eventually return to relevance in this suddenly stacked division. In the next few seasons, it's going to take a lot more than half-measures to win the NL East.
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