The biggest question of the Phillies' offseason has been answered.
J.T. Realmuto is back.
The All-Star catcher, who became a free agent at the end of the 2020 season, has agreed to a five-year contract with the Phillies, according to sources. The deal is worth $115.5 million and carries an average annual value of $23.1 million, the highest ever for a catcher, topping former Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer's annual salary of $23 million.
Realmuto, who will turn 30 on March 18, joined the Phillies in February 2019 in a trade from the Miami Marlins. He is widely considered the best all-around catcher in the game.
The agreement between Realmuto and the Phillies ends nearly two years of on-again, off-again negotiations between the two sides.
The Phillies tried to extend Realmuto's contract shortly after acquiring him and again in spring training 2020, but both times came up short. Realmuto came to the Phillies two years shy of free agency and was only going to give up that right for a very rich deal. Several times during interviews over the past year, Realmuto made it clear that he believed catcher salaries had lagged behind other position players in the game and he dedicated himself to raising the bar for all catchers either in a huge extension or on the free agent market.
According to multiple sources, Realmuto was seeking a seven-year deal in excess of $200 million when talks between his side and the Phillies were shut down because of the pandemic in March.
When Major League Baseball lifted its moratorium on transactions and negotiations in late June, then Phillies general manager Matt Klentak cast some gloom on the team's chances to retain Realmuto when he spoke of a "changed" financial landscape in the game due to a shortened 2020 season and revenue losses caused by the pandemic.
"We just need to let that play out," Klentak said.
Still looking for a record payday for a catcher, Realmuto became a free agent shortly after the World Series, but the market for his services was never as robust as he and his advisers had anticipated. The New York Mets, a team with deep pockets and a need at catcher, signed a cheaper option in James McCann and other teams who may have had a need behind the plate cut spending or used their limited resources to address other positions. One of those teams was the New York Yankees, who spent their free-agent dollars on retaining second baseman DJ LeMahieu rather than sinking them into a need at catcher.
There were several other potential landing spots for Realmuto that never materialized, most notably Toronto, which used its free-agent dollars on outfielder George Springer.
Eventually, Realmuto's market swung right back to Philadelphia. The Phillies, as Klentak had said back in June, let things play out and ended up with their man. Alas, Klentak was not there to preside over the final stages of negotiations and the agreement. He was fired after five losing seasons in October and replaced by veteran executive Dave Dombrowski in December. One of Dombrowski's first moves was to visit with Realmuto in person in the player's home state of Oklahoma two days before Christmas.
"It's apparent why everyone in the Phillies organization thinks so highly of J.T. as a person and a player," Dombrowski said of the meeting.
Realmuto becomes the third player on the Phillies' roster with a contract of greater than $100 million, joining outfielder Bryce Harper, who is entering the third year of a 13-year, $330-million deal, and Zack Wheeler, who is entering the second year of a five-year, $118 million deal.
Realmuto's return will make the clubhouse happy. He is one of the most well-respected players in the room, and all of baseball, for that matter, for his quiet, serious, head-down, hard-working approach to the game. Harper, known for his sizzle and flash, is one of Realmuto's biggest fans and he politicked loudly for the team to re-sign his favorite player.
"J.T. Realmuto needs to be our catcher next year — plain and simple," Harper said after the last game of the 2020 season.