Why the Nationals should do what it takes to trade for the Marlins' J.T. Realmuto
The two teams are still talking about a deal involving the underrated catcher
The Nationals' sense of organizational urgency is such that they parted ways with the veteran manager, Dusty Baker, who guided them to 97 wins and a division title in 2017. That's because the 2018 season is almost certainly Bryce Harper's last in Washington. As well, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, and Ryan Madson will likely choose to join Harper on the free-agent market next winter, and ace Max Scherzer will turn 34 in July. Baseball is built to defy easy assumptions, but the 2018 season looks and feels like the Nats' last best chance for a while. They should continue treating it as such.
To that end, the Nationals badly need a new catcher. Incumbent Matt Wieters is coming off a 2017 season in which he put up a patently unacceptable OBP of .288 and OPS+ of 63. As well, Wieters is a notable liability on defense. The all-encompassing defensive metric for catchers at Baseball Prospectus (subscription required and worth it) tabs Wieters in 2017 as 13 runs worse than the average backstop when it comes to blocking pitches, framing pitches, controlling the running game, and fielding batted balls. Stated another way, Wieters ranked 108th out of 110 catchers last season. It's one thing to give away runs behind the plate if you're producing at the plate, but Wieters isn't doing any of it. The Nats badly need an upgrade, even if it means eating all or most of Wieters' $10.5 million salary for 2018.
On that front, the Marlins are of course willing to part with their deeply underrated catcher, J.T. Realmuto. Realmuto also reportedly wants out of Miami now that the roster has crumbled around him. No surprise, then, that the two teams are talking ...
So the Marlins have no qualms about dealing Realmuto within the division, and they're asking a lot. First, though, let's talk about Realmuto's merits. He's going into his age-27 season. Across parts of four big-league seasons, Realmuto owns an OPS+ of 104, which is strong production by catcher standards. In 2017, he batted .278/.332/.451 (109 OPS+) with 17 home runs in 141 games. On the defensive front, Realmuto by that same Baseball Prospectus metric ranked 11th in all of baseball with 6.4 runs saved above the average catcher. To put that in perspective, Realmuto ranked just behind Yadier Molina in 2017 and just ahead of Jeff Mathis -- enviable defensive company, that. Realmuto is a genuine two-way threat as catchers go and for the Nationals a massive upgrade over Wieters.
As well, Realmuto enters the 2018 campaign with just a bit more than three years of major-league service time. That means he's not eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season. So the Nats would be getting at least three seasons of one of the best catchers in baseball (yes, J.T. Realmuto is one of the best catchers in baseball, even if he's not widely recognized as such). That of quality in tandem with team control costs a lot on the trade market, which is why the Marlins are reasonably asking for a frontline prospect in return. As Jon Morosi notes above, outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto meet that standard and are of interest to the Marlins.
Robles is the more well regarded of the two, and he's indeed one of the five or six best prospects in the game today. Of course, Morosi reports that the Marlins want Robles or Soto. Look, if you can get a player like Realmuto without sending Robles the other way -- that's the implication -- then you do it without hesitation. Even if it costs you Robles, the Nats must seriously consider doing it. Realmuto is an excellent player who addresses the most glaring roster need of a team that's pot-committed to winning in 2018. As well, he's not a "rental" player; he's a near- to mid-term bedrock who comes with three years of control and, by extension, three years of evaluation and opportunity when it comes to a potential extension that cuts into his free agent years. Pressing for Robles or Soto isn't an opening gambit, it's a very reasonable ask on the part of Miami.
If you're the Nationals, you make that deal and then you drop an All-Star-caliber catcher into your lineup.
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