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A J.T. Realmuto contract extension just got a lot more expensive

How much did an All-Star-caliber first half boost his future earning potential?

Buster Posey (far left) set the recent precedent for what a superstar catcher in the midst of his arbitration eligible years can earn on a long-term deal.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s Statcast official: Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto has earned his first career MLB All-Star selection. Thriving as a .317/.368/.551 hitter with terrific defense and baserunning was just enough for Realmuto to be added to the National League roster as the third-string player at his own position.

Putting aside the flawed selection process, this is a significant milestone for him, both personally and financially.

Realmuto was arguably the Marlins’ top major league asset prior to the 2018 season due to his combination of skill set, youth, track record and positional scarcity. Some wondered whether he might bring back a trade haul comparable to the Christian Yelich package. That’s almost assured at this point—perhaps the Astros or Nationals perceive the 27-year-old as the seismic midseason addition required to push them over the top, or he can shopped to a broader market this coming winter. Regardless, expect a lot in return.

Tempting as that seems, however, the Fish insist that they want to eventually contend themselves. With all due respect to his potential successor, anybody besides the current version of Realmuto would be a downgrade at the catcher position. On the other hand, this team realistically won’t be ready to contend until 2021, when he can enter free agency and command a payday beyond the means of a low-revenue franchise.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

As reported by Craig Mish of SiriusXM, the front office plans to approach Realmuto later this year with a long-term contract extension. If successful, the Marlins will lock up their cornerstone through the remainder of his prime at a below-market rate. If the parties reach an impasse, he’ll be flipped for controllable, high-ceiling prospects who better suit the timeline.

So what’s it gonna take to reach a deal?

I asked this same question in March when the Reds extended third baseman Eugenio Suárez. Despite the obvious difference in position, Suárez and Realmuto matched up nicely in terms of age, service time, recent production and overall production. Suárez signed for seven years and $66 million, which already looks like a team-friendly contract after his sensational first half. By delaying their negotiations for a few extra months, the Marlins may have cost themselves tens of millions of dollars.

Before attempting to arrive at a “fair” extension, let’s assume these are the circumstances of their negotiations:

  • Talks occur immediately after the 2018 regular season
  • Realmuto finishes with the season stats projected by ZiPS (.300/.350/.505, 19 HR, 5.0 fWAR); although a conservative estimate, he would still be regarded as MLB’s best-performing catcher

Recent deals awarded to Salvador Pérez and Buster Posey should set the floor and ceiling, respectively, for his expectations.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Salvador Pérez

Contract Terms: five years (no options), $52.5 million

Contract Structure: salaries of $3 million, $7.5 million, $10 million, $13 million and $13 million; $6 million signing bonus

This contract took effect with Pérez’s age-27 season, so fairly comparable to Realmuto, who will turn 28 next March. It was agreed to in 2016 spring training with Salvy already established as a productive, durable catcher.

He was negotiating from a vulnerable position, having previously signed an extremely team-friendly extension at the beginning of his career. The Royals viewed this more as a “restructuring” than a new deal in that it guaranteed several remaining option years that Pérez had no control over. Also, despite collecting an All-Star selection, Gold Glove award and World Series ring for his efforts, the 2015 campaign was not a particularly good one individually (.260/.280/.426, 87 wRC+, 31 CS%, 1.6 fWAR).

Keep in mind, Realmuto also lacks some leverage after losing his first-year arbitration case to the Marlins (panel ruled in team’s favor at $2.9 million). Even while dominating this season, his earnings will be suppressed in 2019 and 2020 because of that modest base salary.

There will be mutual interest from the Marlins and their backstop in doing a longer deal than this. Barring a severe second-half injury, it will also carry a much higher average annual value—Pérez was plateauing; Realmuto is peaking.

Buster Posey

Posey was considered the face of a potential Giants dynasty and compensated accordingly.
Photo by Getty Images

Contract Terms: nine years (10th-year team option), $167 million

Contract Structure: salaries of $3 million, $10.5 million, $16.5 million, $20 million, $21.4 million, $21.4 million, $21.4 million, $21.4 million and $21.4 million; $7 million signing bonus and $22 million team option ($3 million buyout)

Additional Perks: full no-trade clause

At this exact moment in time, J.T. Realmuto is better than Posey, and the players who voted otherwise should be embarrassed. But that’s a conversation for a different article.

Realmuto’s superb 2018 doesn’t quite stack up to Posey’s 2012. The latter stuffed his trophy case with an NL All-Star nod, batting title, Silver Slugger and near-unanimous MVP heading into arbitration for the first time. With traditional counting stats (24 HR, 103 RBI, 530 AB) telling the same flattering story as sabermetrics, he was poised to set a new precedent for what controllable catchers could make.

So the Giants just backed up the Brink’s truck to avoid the drama. They can retain him through age 35—the 2022 season—if he continues aging gracefully.

Although Posey didn’t quite maintain that superhuman form, he’s provided enough return on the investment to reassure the Marlins to explore a deal of comparable length.

J.T. Realmuto (projected)

Contract Terms: eight years (opt-out after sixth year, ninth-year vesting option), $121 million

Contract Structure: salaries of $7 million, $12 million, $15 million, $20 million, $20 million, $20 million, $13.5 million and $13.5 million; $15 million vesting option guaranteed with 400-plus plate appearances in 2026

Additional Perks: limited no-trade clause

The one thing you worry about with Realmuto is his aggressive approach. Both the 5.5 percent walk rate this season and 5.2 percent rate for his career are below average. There will come a point during the extension when his running ability diminishes, or maybe the Marlins would shift him to first base to preserve his legs. In either case, the questionable on-base skills during his decline phase prevent him from rivaling Posey’s riches.

Even the pre-opt-out portion of the contract—six years, $94 million—adds on four seasons of control that the Fish don’t currently have. Realmuto’s maximum $20 million salary during that stretch still leaves flexibility to assemble a deep supporting cast. Approaching age 34, he’d have the choice to stay for the final chunk (a max of three years, $42 million if he qualifies for the vesting option) or, if he’s still near the top of his game, test free agency.

Old ownership was reluctant to provide players with any no-trade protection, but doing so would send a loud message to free agents that “we want you to be comfortable here.”

Veteran Cameron Maybin (right) has enjoyed himself since signing a free-agent deal.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Rahul Setty of FanGraphs is just the latest writer to demonstrate how Realmuto is better than ever. The Marlins missed the boat on signing him cheaply.

However, there’s still an opportunity to reach terms that leave both sides feeling satisfied and optimistic about the future of the franchise.