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Braves’ Acquisition of McCann Bottlenecks Market for J.T. Realmuto

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The move shows that teams aren’t waiting for the Marlins to break the ice on the catcher’s market. If the Fish still want to get a lot in a trade, they may have to give a little.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Getting to Yes is a popular treatise on how to negotiate effectively. Research on bargaining tactics was conducted by Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and distilled into book form by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

In the very first chapter of the book, it provides:

Arguing over positions produces unwise outcomes. When negotiators bargain over positions, they tend to lock themselves into those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attack, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince the other side of the impossibility of changing your opening position, the more difficult it becomes to do so. Your ego becomes identified with your position. You now have a new interest in “saving face” — in reconciling future action with past positions — making it less and less likely that any agreement will wisely reconcile the parties’ original intent.

It’s time to start talking about the problem with this sentence: “If [insert team here] wants J.T. Realmuto, an offer will have to start with [top 10 prospect].”

That is bargaining using positions.

On Monday, the Atlanta Braves—perhaps the biggest suitor of J.T. Realmuto—added an interesting wrinkle to this saga by signing Brian McCann to a one year, $2 million contract. Not insignificant, on the same day as the McCann signing, the Braves also signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal. There goes a decent chunk of payroll, potentially contributing to the Braves wanting a more favorable deal for a catcher.

Then we can talk about intangibles. The Braves now have two veteran leaders as catchers to help guide their considerably young and talented corps of pitchers. There’s also the general stigma accompanying in-division trades that has oft been cited in light of recent failed attempts between the Marlins and the Braves and Nationals.

But it is no accident that the Braves—for the third or fourth time in as many years—have passed on a Realmuto trade for a less attractive addition. Something else is in the mix.

One would have to believe that the cost of not trading for Realmuto outweighs the money saved by signing McCann. McCann is coming off of the worst year of his career; in just 63 games in 2018, he posted a sub-.300 wOBA and a wRC+ of just 82. As for his defense, according to Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs, McCann fell outside of the top 30 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, with just 4.1 Runs Above Average.

McCann is a diminished version of the perennial All-Star that Braves fans remember
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Braves have seemingly committed to platooning the 34-year old lefty with Tyler Flowers. While Flowers appears poised to bounce back after undercutting his xwOBA by 25 points and leading all catchers in Hard Hit Percentage in 2018*, it would be foolhardy to predict a full regression of McCann’s .229 BABIP to more normal levels. Assuming Flowers returns to his 2017 self, I would still cap the combined fWAR at catcher around 3.

Meanwhile, Realmuto has broken the 3 fWAR barrier now three years in a row. Last year, he was—all together now—The Most Valuable Catcher in the MLB. Although it’s a possibility that Realmuto can be extended with his new team, if the Braves wanted to, they could also just offer him his regular Arb-2 contract, which I predicted would sit somewhere around $5.6 million. That’s just $3.6 million more than what McCann received, and it still invites anywhere from around $22-$35 million in surplus value from the 27-year-old.

So where is the rub? Why would the Braves decide to take McCann while Realmuto is very much available? Well the answer is obviously the impending prospect haul. It’s common knowledge that the Braves have an embarrassment of riches just beginning to breach the surface at the Major League level. The Marlins are in the right to try and take from this wellspring of talent.

SiriusXM host Craig Mish cautions us that the McCann acquisition does not rule out the Realmuto-to-Atlanta possibility. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic hears the same from his sources (subscription required).

But for the team to dig their heels in on high-profile farmhands like Christian Pache, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Austin Riley, and Ian Anderson is asking a lot of any team. Rosenthal’s report also cites Miami’s request for second baseman Ozzie Albies, which didn’t gain traction because of the combination of youth and MLB production that makes him a critical piece to the Braves core.

Make no mistake about it: the Marlins are very concerned about appearances. They are trying to turn a new leaf, and thus far, they have successfully done so. They have regained favor in the hearts of many with their community outreach, their flashy rebrand, and their foray into the International free agent market, with the signings of the Mesa Bros. The last domino in place is Realmuto, and the team has to know that the fans want one more big haul.

However, if the Marlins become bent on a position and trying to save face by requesting beyond their means, they are going to be in an exceedingly uncomfortable predicament. Don’t get pressured into too little of a return with time winding down in the offseason, or retain Realmuto for 2019 when it is so clearly against his wishes.

In the meantime, the battlefield is now set for the catcher’s market:

It’s unfair to put tradable catchers on a list with free agents because it ignores the simple, most significant point: if a team wants a free agent, they don’t have to give up two premium prospects. While it’s true that free agents often demand higher salaries, recall that Realmuto could also be extended long term. In terms of an extension, he would be in position to challenge Yadier Molina and Buster Posey for highest AAV on a contract for a catcher. Now a team may have to fork over prospects and payroll to have Realmuto? That is a lot to ask, and if the Marlins get too grabby, teams with stacked farm systems like the Dodgers, Astros, and Rockies may tell the Fish to kick rocks and default to guys like Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos, or Martin Maldonado.

The moral of the story is that flipping Realmuto is much easier said than done. It is easy to get caught up in his accolades and convince ourselves that a team will bet the farm on Realmuto. While J.T.’s value has never been higher, the Marlins still have to acknowledge that there is a ceiling on what they can ask for. As caveated, only the people within the Marlins’ Baseball ops really know what went down in the negotiations with the Braves. There’s no doubt that the powers that be for the Marlins are experienced negotiators who know what it takes to get deals done in the MLB.

But if the Braves were scared away by over-positional bargaining tactics, the Marlins may need to rethink their strategy. Otherwise, before they can do anything about it, this market will quickly slip through their fingers.


Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Spotrac.com

*among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances; Flowers had 296