It took until the final week before spring training, but the Miami Marlins finally traded J.T. Realmuto on Thursday, and it wasn’t to the Dodgers.
The Marlins, enduring their umpteenth rebuild in the last two decades, sent the all-star catcher to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for catcher Jorge Alfaro, two promising pitching prospects and international bonus pool money.
That leaves the Dodgers set to start with Russell Martin and Austin Barnes as their catchers.
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, began the offseason bluntly by admitting his club was in the market for a catcher. Yasmani Grandal, the team’s starting catcher in 2018, was a free agent after declining the Dodgers’ qualifying offer. That left Barnes and a pair of top-flight catching prospects the club deemed not ready to begin the 2019 season in the majors.
The situation made the Dodgers a sensible suitor for Realmuto, and they were rumored as such all winter. Realmuto has two years of team control remaining, making him at the very least a vastly overqualified stopgap until prospects Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith were big-league ready. But the Marlins’ price was high from the start and, as evidenced by the deal they swung on Thursday, it remained lofty.
Realmuto’s value as an all star at baseball’s thinnest position was obvious, plus he had an affordable contract and won’t turn 28 until next month. Over the last four seasons, only Buster Posey’s 17.9 wins above replacement [WAR] is higher than Realmuto’s 12.9 among catchers. Last season, he was the best catcher in baseball, batting .277 with 21 home runs and an .825 on-base-plus-slugging percentage [OPS] while compiling
4.8 WAR. And Realmuto’s splits suggest he’ll be a better hitter playing his home games somewhere other than at Marlins Park; he posted a .773 OPS in Miami and an .870 OPS on the road in 2018.
A year after shedding Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna in trades, the Marlins sought a robust return for their final prized asset. The Dodgers could’ve paid the steep price for Realmuto or acquired someone else to split playing time with Barnes, who batted .205 with a .619 OPS last season after a breakout 2017 campaign.
An indication that the cost for Realmuto was too great for the Dodgers surfaced last month, when they reacquired Russell Martin from the Toronto Blue Jays. Martin batted .194 with a .663 OPS in 90 games in 2018. A return to all-star form isn’t expected — Martin turns 36 next week — but the Dodgers hope he, like Barnes, will recoup some of his production in a part-time role while providing a positive presence behind the plate and in the clubhouse.
“Lose a catcher in Grandal, but the tandem of Barnes and Martin, I think the individual at-bat quality should be better,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in late January. “I can’t say the production [should be better], but I still think those guys in the lineup and handling the pitching staff, there’s not a whole lot of drop-off for me.”
As for the prospects, Friedman said he envisioned Smith, 23, making his major league debut in 2019. He spent last September with the Dodgers but not on the active roster.
“I think [Smith] could catch defensively in the major leagues right now and be upper echelon, and we think there’s real potential with the bat,” Friedman said earlier this offseason. “But getting more at-bats and more reps, we think is helpful and will put him in better position to get him to the major league level and hit the ground running.
The Dodgers aren’t counting on Ruiz, their top prospect, to make his major league debut this season. Ruiz, 20, spent the entire 2018 season with Class-A Tulsa, hitting .268 with 12 home runs and a .728 OPS in 101 games.
“Keibert is a guy who obviously is really young, [but] is extremely mature,” Friedman said. “Special hit ability. And he has worked extremely hard to learn English just because of the pitcher-catcher relationship and him appreciating how important that is. Every development hurdle we’ve thrown at him, he’s handled extremely well.”
On paper, the current catching situation is a downgrade from last season, when Grandal was the best catcher in baseball not named Realmuto. Yet, the Dodgers remain heavy favorites in the National League West.
For example, PECOTA, a sabermetric system for forecasting Major League Baseball player performance, has projected the Dodgers will win 95 games — seven more than any other team in the National League and 10 more than any NL West rival.