The original sin of the Brodie Van Wagenen administration or, perhaps more correctly, the final years of the House of Wilpon, was trading Jarred Kelenic for Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano and the final five years of Cano’s contract.
That trade still has a chance to age better or worse, depending on if Kelenic reaches his ceiling and/or Diaz and Cano help the Mets win a title over the next few years. Diaz and Cano actually performed well in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.
The second sin was failing to secure J.T. Realmuto via trade or Yasmani Grandal via free agency in Van Wagenen’s first offseason in charge. Add a two-way catcher to the Mets the past two years and they are a playoff team at least once, maybe more.
Realmuto probably rightfully slipped away to the Phillies because the Mets balked at various packages, which along the way included some combination of Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario and Ronny Mauricio. The talks also involved at times third partners, such as the Yankees and Rays.
The Mets offered Grandal four years at $60 million in December 2018. The switch-hitter thought he was worth more. That was the Mets’ breaking point, and they felt they had too much else to acquire within a budget that offseason to haggle. So they shifted to third on their list, Wilson Ramos, for two years at $19 million.
Grandal never did find his market that offseason and decided to bet on himself by signing just a one-year deal with the Brewers for $18.25 million. He was rewarded the following offseason with a four-year, $73 million pact ($18.25 million annually) by the White Sox. So he turned down four years at $60 million and wound up with five years at $91.25 million. The Mets ended up with the one-dimensional Ramos.
Plug in Grandal’s righty bat (.923 OPS from that side by the switch-hitter) and defensive acumen (he was second in defensive Wins Above Replacement by a catcher in 2019-20) and how much better are the Mets the last two years? Among those who caught at least 500 innings in that period, Ramos was 36th in defensive WAR (Fangraphs version).
But Ramos’ contract is done, which brings us to the catcher who finished first in that defensive rating. That would also be the catching leader in offensive WAR in 2019-20. That would be Realmuto. And he is in position now to cost just money – not Conforto, Gimenez or Nimmo. And no team theoretically has more money to spend than Steve Cohen’s Mets this offseason.
And if Cohen’s introductory press conference proved nothing else, it was that he is a true Mets fan. So, he knows that arguably no two additions in Mets history changed the club from good to championship contenders like adding catchers Gary Carter and Mike Piazza in trades.
So, why in the world would Cohen not reach into his deep pockets and avoid the sin of the previous administration?
The answer is he might spend to land the best catcher in the game. But history suggests Cohen should use his money to pay Realmuto more money for less years. What if Cohen/Sandy Alderson doubled Van Wagenen’s offer to Grandal to make it $120 million for four years? The $30 million average would blow away the record of $23 million per annum that Joe Mauer received on his eight-year, $184 million pact with the Twins.
Realmuto is probably shooting to top Mauer and Buster Posey (nine years, $167 million) for the most ever received by a catcher. But what the Mets should remember is neither aged well, especially into their 30s — and Realmuto turns 30 in 2021.
A two WAR season computes to roughly an average player, a three WAR above average and four WAR All-Star level. Mauer’s last 3.0 WAR season as a catcher was at 30. Posey had fallen each year from 6.0 in 2015 to 3.0 at age 31 in 2018, to 0.9 in 2019 (he opted out of the 2020 season). Even in a loosey-goosey age, Piazza’s last 3.0 WAR season was at age 33 during his seven-year, $91 million pact. This is a physically demanding position and it took a toll on all three.
Only Yadier Molina (5,788 innings) has caught more from 2015-20 than Realmuto (5,615). Realmuto has finished the last two seasons hurt, first with a meniscus injury that needed surgery and last year with a hip ailment.
The sell for Realmuto is that he is so athletic he will age better than the average catcher. Russell Martin is the most athletic catcher I have covered. He was elite from 30-32, then dropped steadily in performance and durability. Maybe Realmuto will be as sturdy into his late-30s as Molina. Maybe, like Craig Biggio, he is so athletic he can move from behind the plate to other positions and excel. But you would be signing him as a catcher. That is where he gives a team an edge.
Perhaps the Phillies will beat the Mets to retain him. But the Mets should force an NL East rival to prove they will go there when all indications are they want to lower payroll as a result of the pandemic. Cohen/Alderson should go diligently after Realmuto with this catch – four years, a record average value for the position and let’s see if you could really do better than that.
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