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Analysis: J.T. Realmuto is the free agent the Mets should sign

J.T. Realmuto of the Phillies hits a home

J.T. Realmuto of the Phillies hits a home run against the Pirates during the sixth inning of a game at Citizens Bank Park on Aug. 28, 2019 in Philadelphia. Credit: Getty Images/Rich Schultz

As Mets owner Steve Cohen and president Sandy Alderson search for someone to lead their baseball operations department, a reminder about the player front: J.T. Realmuto, arguably the best free agent, period, available this offseason, happens to play the position at which the Mets are most in need of help.

Yes, catcher is where the Mets are worst off. The top of the depth chart at the moment: Tomas Nido, Ali Sanchez.

Trevor Bauer would be a luxury in a rotation that already features Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman and should get Noah Syndergaard back mid-2021. George Springer would upgrade the outfield defense, but the Mets could stick with Brandon Nimmo if they want.

It is too early to tell where Realmuto will sign, especially in what is expected to be a slow-developing offseason. But we can say with certainty that he would fit well in Queens for the obvious reasons that the Mets — newly rich and without an All-Star behind the plate since Paul Lo Duca in 2006 — need a starting catcher and Realmuto is just about the best there is.

Cohen warned this month that he doesn’t want the Mets to "act like drunken sailors in the marketplace," so don’t expect all of the big names above. There is an easy case to be made that Realmuto would be most valuable of these options to the Mets, even amid the mutual flirtation between Bauer and Alderson and speculation that Springer, a Connecticut native, wants to play closer to home.

Realmuto is a premier righthanded bat at the position — much better than Wilson Ramos, whom the Mets are looking to replace — and a top-notch defender at maybe the most important defensive spot on the field. His leadership has drawn comparisons with Derek Jeter from Don Mattingly, Realmuto's former Marlins manager, who knows a little something about starring on a team in New York. And some of his historical matches are the best ever to play the position.

An aside on Realmuto’s health: His hip is back to normal, a source said. The strain that limited him for much of September no longer is an issue, and he has been doing his regular offseason workouts.

Injuries for a catcher are always of some concern. It is a physically brutal position, and many catchers get old quick. Realmuto will turn 30 in March, but his uncommon degree of athleticism offers reason to believe that his 30s will treat him more kindly than they do his peers.

Realmuto, a shortstop until he went pro out of high school, has dabbled at first base in recent years. His sprint speed was 28.2 feet per second in 2020. That was the fastest among catchers and above-average relative to all major-leaguers.

The only Mets who were faster? Shortstops Amed Rosario (28.7) and Andres Gimenez (28.9). Ramos was fifth-slowest among all major-leaguers at 23.3 feet per second.

At the plate, Realmuto’s production is superlative. In two seasons with the Phillies, he hit .273 with a .333 OBP and .492 slugging percentage — tops among catchers. He also had 35 homers (tied for second behind Gary Sanchez), 115 RBIs (first) and 13 steals (first by a lot).

Catchers as good as Realmuto have tended to continue to play well in their 30s. Over the past four seasons, starting in 2017 when he was 26, Realmuto had the following Wins Above Replacement totals, according to FanGraphs: 4.4, 4.9, 5.7 and 1.7. The last of those came in the 60-game pandemic schedule this year and in a full season converts to 4.6.

Consider the list of catchers who had a 4.4 WAR in every season from ages 26 through 29: Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Mickey Cochrane. That is five Hall of Famers and two active players who have an awfully good shot at Cooperstown.

Catching up with J.T.

Born: March 18, 1991

Bats: Right Height/weight: 6-1, 212

2020 stats: Batting average .266 HRs 11 RBIs 32 Slugging average .491

Career stats (7 years): Batting average:278 HRs 95 RBIs 358 Slugging average: .455

SOURCE: baseball-reference.com

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