It’s April 18th, and the last thing I would have expected to do on this day is profile a big-name potential trade acquisition for the Mets.
Of course, I also didn’t expect the Mets to surge out of the gate to a 12-2 start. Nor did I anticipate that Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki would be shelved by significant injuries in the same calendar day.
It’s to be determined where this historically hot start for the Mets will take them. But even for the most pessimistic of Mets fans, it appears safe to say that a competitive 2018 season is almost certainly on the horizon.
What this means is Sandy Alderson will be working the phones with other teams as the weather gets warmer. With a slew of teams seemingly raising the white flag in 2018, there should be no shortage of reinforcements available for teams that are striving to play deep into October.
While the construction of the team will likely shift due to injuries and slumps as the season goes on, there is one clear weakness for the Mets that stands to be addressed: catcher. While there was some optimism that d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki were about to simultaneously reach post-hype sleeper status together, this bubble was burst by a torn UCL for the injury-riddled d’Arnaud, and a hairline fracture suffered by Plawecki on a fastball that drilled him.
Now, the Mets are trotting out Jose Labaton and Tomas Nido, who is more known for his glove than his bat while he struggled on his way to a .230 batting average in Double-AA in 2017.
Plawecki expects to be back within the month. But the reality is, his return doesn’t necessarily guarantee his spot through the duration of the season. The most frustrating part of his injury is that the runway this scorching start for the Mets had allowed for an opportunity for Plawecki to settle in as the primary catcher. This time could have been used to see if Plawecki would be a contributor, rather than a liability, for a playoff caliber club.
With this prognosis, Plawecki has one less month to convince the Mets front office not to pick up the phone and inquire about good catchers on bad teams.
Given their current situation, the name J.T. Realmuto will be uttered more frequently as the season progresses. He’s the biggest name at the catcher position available on the trade market in years and would fill a gaping void for the Mets not just for this season, but 2019 and 2020. Mike Puma of the New York Post has reported that the Mets have already reached out to the Marlins about their star catcher, who’s season debut was delayed until April 17th due to a back contusion.
Before examining what it might take for the Mets to land Realmuto, here is a quick profile of the perpetually underrated catcher.
The Total Package
J.T. Realmuto made his major league debut with the Marlins in 2014 and has started at least 125 games in each of his first three full seasons. During that time span, only Buster Posey has been his superior in terms of WAR. Realmuto’s defensive value also ranks top 3 in the league since 2015, per Fangraphs, a stat that is magnified given the fact the Nationals run like Usain Bolt whenever they play the Mets.
Over the course of his career in the majors, the league average caught stealing rate is 28%. Realmuto’s is 32%. While he’s not locking down base stealers like Yadier Molina (40%), his above average ability to throw out a would be base stealer is enough to garner respect from teams like the Nationals, who turn every single or walk into a double instantly.
A defensive improvement alone would be significant for the Mets, essentially since their offense with a light-hitting catcher could still cause some damage.
With that said, his ability to hit would be a huge boon to the lineup. While there’s not one aspect of Realmuto’s hitting game that stands out, he hits for average and has ascending power that could make him a twenty home run threat (he increased his home run total from 11 to 17 from 2016 to 2017).
Every part of his hitting profile is what we all envisioned Travis d’Arnaud to be when they acquired him in the R.A. Dickey trade. And there’s reason to think he’s getting better.
Realmuto is just 27, and it is commonplace for a catcher’s offense to develop later on since their primary focus upon being called up is on the defensive part of the game. Realmuto made gains in his profile last year, increasing his percentage of hard contact from 30% to 33%, and decreasing his softly hit contact rate from 21% to 14%. This, coupled with a greater tendency to pull in 2017, likely led to his increase in home runs.
Realmuto provides quality defense and has certainly displayed hitting skills that are elite for any catcher. He’s proven to be durable and is under contract at a reasonable rate through the end of the 2020 season.
What Will It Take?
It’s tough to project a trade for Realmuto because a catcher of his caliber hasn’t been traded for years. Given his production compared to his catching peers, the Marlins will likely be starting negotiations by asking for an elite prospect, or a couple of highly coveted minor leaguers.
The Mets farm system has been thinned out by promoting their best players and the trades they have made while in contention. Six of their top ten prospects, including four of their top five, are in Single-A or lower. The Mets are proceeding through this window with a group of veterans and younger players at the MLB level, hoping they can keep the team in contention without needing to dip into the farm system for much help.
At this juncture, the only way to get immediate value from the farm system as currently constructed is to flip their raw, but talented, low level prospects for productive major leaguers. The question is, how much is Sandy Alderson willing to deplete a farm system that is already on shaky ground? And how does the rest of the league view the Mets’ teenage talent?
Alderson can take solace in the fact that his reward for the mess that unfolded last year was the sixth overall pick and around $10,000,000 in bonus money to spend on players who’s asking price could be too high for teams that pick lower and thus, have less spending power. This is a prime opportunity for Alderson to provide reinforcements for the minor leagues while the big league club is still in the middle of its window for contention.
With this in mind, Alderson may be more liberal when determining what he is willing to part with for Realmuto. Given his track record, it’s unlikely he would part with someone of Andres Gimenez’ caliber, the team’s number one prospect who is holding his own at a level in which he is playing with players typically 2-3 years his senior.
When calling middling teams for their best players, Alderson can expect to be badgered for Brandon Nimmo whose stock has skyrocketed since exhibiting a hitting and fielding ability that has led many to believe that his ceiling is much higher than we have previously thought. Even though there is no clear path for him to get regular playing time at the moment, Conforto’s shoulder, Bruce’s foot, and both of Cespedes’ legs provide more than enough reason to make sure to keep him on the roster. Given his upside and team need, Nimmo should be deemed untradeable.
The Mets have a conundrum at first base that could make Dominic Smith or Peter Alonso expendable. Adrian Gonzalez is holding the fort at first, but despite one grand showing in D.C., there still isn’t much reason to believe he’s the year-long solution. Bruce’s balky foot, coupled with the Mets’ glut of talented outfielders under team control for the distant future, creates reason to commit to Bruce being the first baseman moving forward. Moving Bruce to first would afford the Mets the ability to offer the pick of Smith or Alonso to the Marlins.
The flip side to that is the presence of Justin Bour would block Smith or Alonso, but given the direction of the Marlins franchise, there’s a strong possibility he’ll be in another team’s uniform by the end of the summer. If they are optimistic about one of those two, Bour’s status on the roster wouldn’t do anything to stop them.
On its own, that wouldn’t be enough to procure Realmuto. The team might be reluctant to do this since their starting rotation is consistently in flux, but their low-level blue chip arms (David Peterson, Justin Dunn, and Thomas Szapucki) should be made available if they hope to land someone of Realmuto’s caliber. The Mets’ track record in developing premier starters and excellent relievers only serves to enhance the value of their pitching prospects moving forward, leading to the likelihood that they will be targeted by teams who are rebuilding.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that of all the prospects the Marlins have accrued through the draft and their firesale this past winter, they don’t have a single catching prospect ranked in the top 30 of their organization. If Realmuto is acquired, Plawecki would stand to be a serviceable backup for the Mets but is certainly expendable. His performance in the majors has been lacking to say the least, but given his pedigree in the minors, he could have value to a team like the Marlins. They are in no rush to win and have the time to see if 65th best prospect in 2014 could end up being a late bloomer with significantly more playing time.
Would a combination of Smith/Alonso, one or two pitching prospects, and Plawecki be enough to bring Realmuto over? It’s tough to say, as different teams target different kinds of players. The Pirates passed on higher ranked prospects in the Gerrit Cole trade to procure more major league ready talent. They passed on upside for certainty, and it might actually be paying off for them better than many thought.
What do the Marlins want? What are the Mets willing to give up? The dance has begun, and the trade winds have started, much earlier than we all have thought they would.
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