The Miami Marlins got an unexpected bit of their future at the catcher position when Jarrod Saltalamacchia went down with a concussion and was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list. The Fish brought up top catching prospect J.T. Realmuto to replace him on the roster, likely to back up Jeff Mathis for the next week while Saltalamacchia clears the various amounts of testing to return to the field.
Realmuto's promotion signals something important for the Fish because his arrival in the majors coincides with his best season as a pro in the minors. During the offseason, the Marlins were concerned about their future at the position and signed Saltalamacchia to an extremely reasonable three-year, $21 million contract. The idea was to keep Miami from needing to depend on the performance of prospects like Realmuto, Rob Brantly, or Kyle Skipworth, who all had awful 2013 seasons at various levels. Here is what Eric Weston said about the future of those prospects at the time.
The goal with the signing was to allow those players time to develop potentially into at least backup catchers, and of the two primary names, Realmuto served the most likely chance to succeed in that regard. The 2010 third-round pick out of Carl Albert High School in Oklahoma was a converted shortstop who was placed in the backstop early and allowed to percolate defensively. The thought was always that his bat would carry him while he served as a serviceable catcher. But over the years, Realmuto has developed into an athletic defender behind the dish with a good arm; he has thrown out 39 percent of would-be basestealers in his career.
The problem has been on offense, as he has regressed since his 2011 season in Low-A Greensboro. He hit .284/.345/.451 (.359 wOBA, 119 wRC+) that year, but struggled in 2012 in High-A Jupiter (.310 wOBA, 90 wRC+) and again in Double-A Jacksonville last season (.309 wOBA, 93 wRC+). The question was whether Realmuto would ever develop a bat in the minors to indicate that he could make the big leagues and hit decently enough to start.
His repeat campaign in Double-A has gone to great strides to do just that. Realmuto is hitting .301/.364/.503 (.390 wOBA, 144 wRC+) and smacked five homers in 195 plate appearances. In comparison, Realmuto hit five homers all season last year. At 23 years old, his repeat level in Double-A has been surprisingly dominant, and his defense remains decent (45 percent caught stealing rate).
The question now is where Realmuto fits in the scheme of things in Miami. Saltalamacchia has had his ups and downs, but he is signed for two more seasons and reasonable rates. His performance overall so far this season has been good, even if it has come in streaky form. Still, there are questions about his defense, and at least one Fish Striper thinks it is time to move on from Saltalamacchia directly to Realmuto. From Lee Stopes on our Fish Stripes Facebook page:
1) Jake Realmuto: the story of the spring.
The top athlete on the farm is finally hitting (over .300 at Jacksonsville) in addition to providing great glovework. Simple truth is that Saltalamacchia should be considered trade fodder right now.
Given Miami's penchant for trading veteran talent they recently sign to contracts, it would not be completely surprising if the Fish opted to trade Saltalamacchia after seeing Realmuto's strong performance.
Then again, Realmuto is not clearly the right choice in this question either. His hot streak has occurred over 197 plate appearances in a level in which is repeating, which gives him a huge edge in terms of experience over pitchers and other hitters. It may be wise for the Marlins to ride out a season with Realmuto, perhaps at a higher level of competition, before anointing him an automatic successor. Given that Saltalamacchia is still performing decently, Miami could afford to wait and see with the younger Realmuto.
The important point here is that Miami even has the option after entering a three-year pact with Saltalamacchia specifically to ignore the catching issue. The team has some newfound tools with which to play now that they have a potentially viable future starter, and the worst that might happen is that the team allows Realmuto to linger longer and learn in the minors as they ride out Saltalamacchia's deal. More option with the tools of ignorance can only help the Fish going forward.