Where Is J.T. Realmuto Headed? Let's Reset the Shrinking, but Viable Market

J.T. Realmuto is the 2018 star of the offseason, but the trade market keeps shifting. Where will the young star end up?
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Scarcely two weeks ago, J.T. Realmuto’s market was as open as could be: almost half of Major League Baseball teams were reportedly inquiring about a trade for the 27-year-old Miami Marlins catcher. As teams have begun to solidify their backstop plans, Miami’s opportunities are starting to seem a little more limited. Realmuto’s still as desirable a catcher as they come—but what does his market look like now?

Realmuto’s reported asking price has, reasonably, been high. He’s coming off a year as baseball’s best offensive catcher, with a 131 OPS+, and Baseball Prospectus’ framing and blocking metrics consider him to be solid enough on defense. The 2018 season was a breakout campaign for him  and he has two years of remaining team control. In an increasingly specialized environment where catchers’ offensive performance, relative to the rest of baseball, has only gotten worse, Realmuto—not just a good hitter for a catcher, but a good hitter, period—is a gem.

At what price, though? The Mets, for instance, were reportedly asked for a combination of young talent that would have ideally included two out of the three of Amed Rosario, Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto, with top organizational prospects also in the conversation, like 20-year-old shortstop Andres Gimenez and teenage infielder Ronny Mauricio. The Marlins have supposedly asked for similar packages from other teams: major-league-ready players, top-tier prospects, or a strong combination of the two. The Mets apparently balked, and they decided to go in another direction—Wilson Ramos, picked up on a two-year deal for $19.5 million.

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The Mets are the latest Realmuto suitor to lock down an alternate catcher, but they aren’t the only one. The Nationals—who were heavily linked to him at last year’s trade deadline—traded for Cleveland’s Yan Gomes and signed free agent Kurt Suzuki for two years. The Braves, briefly touted as a favorite, signed Brian McCann after having previously extended Tyler Flowers, and in recent days, they’ve reportedly dropped their conversations with the Marlins. That leaves several teams still in the running. But Miami’s leverage appears to be slipping—so who’s left, and what can they offer?

The Dodgers: They’re reportedly in talks to potentially re-sign free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal, who rejected a qualifying offer to stay with the team. Still, they seem like a strong front-runner for Realmuto. They’re in the middle of a contention window, and they need a catcher; you can’t ask for a more straightforward picture than that. But Miami’s asking price has supposedly started off highCody Bellinger-high. It’s hard to imagine Los Angeles moving the former Rookie of the Year, but there are some prospect packages that would make sense instead. The Dodgers have two solid catching prospects who could easily move: Keibert Ruiz, a 20-year-old coming out of Double-A, or Will Smith, a 23-year-old coming out of Triple-A. Either one would be a logical starting point for a deal. Another area of depth for the Dodgers is their outfield, which makes it a perfect additional space to draw from. Think 22-year-old Alex Verdugo, who got his first sustained look at the major leagues in 2018. He’s been highly ranked as a prospect and represents one of the team’s most promising young talents, but Realmuto was never going to come cheap. A package like this—Verdugo, Ruiz or Smith, maybe an additional depth piece thrown in—just might be what it takes.

The Padres: As is, San Diego doesn’t look ready for serious competition in 2019. But 2020? With development of existing talent alongside a few supporting moves, it could easily be on the table, and that’s apparently been enough to spark interest in Realmuto. The Padres have a loaded farm system, including several top players who are just about ready for The Show, and there should be several potential combinations here that would satisfy Miami. The question is whether there’s any that they would actually be willing to part with. The Marlins would surely jump at a package headlined by top prospect Fernando Tatis, Jr., but that would be a remarkably high price to pay, and it’s difficult to imagine him flying out.

Another elite prospect who could potentially front a deal is second baseman Luis Urias, though he’d represent a similar whopper of a package that the team might be hesitant to push. Beyond them, A.J. Preller & Co. might not be motivated to part with anyone else too high on their list, as they’ve already got a pair of young catchers in Francisco Mejia and Austin Hedges. As a proven big league quantity, Realmuto would still be a marked upgrade—for instance, there’s been some talk of moving away from the catcher’s spot for Mejia, and the bat has failed to develop for Hedges—but it’s not as if the team has a space that urgently needs to be filled. (Of course, San Diego could also flip this depth around by using Mejia to headline the deal for Realmuto.) The bottom line? There’s plenty to admire for the Marlins, but it’s not clear how much would realistically be on the table. If San Diego were close enough to contending that Realmuto could bridge a significant chunk of its gap in 2019 or 2020, this conversation would likely sound a little different. But the club has other immediate holes—the rotation’s most enticing talent is years away from the majors—and trading big prospects for the catcher’s two-year window might not be their move.

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The Rays: Yes, they traded for Seattle catcher Mike Zunino this winter, but given his bat (or lack thereof), it makes sense that they’d still be interested in an upgrade. The Rays could try to flip Zunino, pairing him with one top prospect (Jesus Sanchez, a 21-year-old outfielder, has been floated) and a young major league piece, such as middle infielder Daniel Robertson. That miiiight work. It’s certainly not Miami’s original asking price, but if the Dodgers take Grandal and the Padres aren’t willing to part with core talent, then there’s a chance.

The Reds: On paper, this doesn't make an awful lot of sense. The Reds’ potential window of contention still looks like it’s a few seasons out, if that; Realmuto, again, is only under team control for two more years. And if Miami’s insistent on having major league talent in the return package, Cincinnati will be set even further back from contending. (It’s apparently not willing to include top prospect Nick Senzel.) Yet traderumors have persisted here, and there’s nothing to indicate that the club is definitively out of the sweepstakes. It doesn’t seem likely. But maybe there’s something to it—at the very least, it would throw a wrench into the catching market and make for an even crazier NL Central, and, hey, who doesn’t want that kind of chaos?

The Astros: With Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado gone to free agency, Houston's in the market for an upgrade at catcher. As recently as a few days ago, it didn't seem like the club would be willing to part with outfielder Kyle Tucker, the top prospect who debuted last season and would probably be the first name on Miami's list in a Realmuto deal. Now, though? The Astros have signed a two-year deal with outfielder Michael Brantley—which doesn't necessarily mean that they're open to moving Tucker, but it certainly might. Tucker could be paired with just one other prospect, someone much further down the organizational list, to be enough for Realmuto. The Astros don't seem like they're in the middle of the conversation here, but don't count them out yet.