There was a moment not long ago, right after Steve Cohen bought the Mets — unleashing a new era of possibility marked by increases to payroll, star power and success — that J.T. Realmuto considered the real-feeling prospect that he would come to Queens.
The Mets told Realmuto, then and now perhaps the best catcher in baseball, in the fall of 2020 that they wanted him. He was intrigued. It sounded like a good idea for both parties. But it never happened.
Two years later, Realmuto is an early World Series hero for the Phillies. The Mets, who instead signed James McCann that offseason, have seen their catching position remain a weakness. Passing on Realmuto — their biggest whiff under this ownership group — has helped shape both teams’ fate since.
Why didn’t the Realmuto-Mets union become reality?
“I wish I knew,” Realmuto told Newsday recently. “They didn’t even try. They didn’t even really try.”
In discussing those interactions now, Realmuto is miffed and mystified but, to be clear, plenty happy with how things turned out. He led the Phillies to their 6-5 win in World Series Game 1 on Friday night by hitting the tying two-run double off Justin Verlander in the fifth and the go-ahead home run off Luis Garcia in the 10th, shaking off a wicked foul ball to his jaw in between.
That Mets episode was a “weird” one, he said.
When he was a brand-new free agent, the Mets, who were in desperate need of a catcher, were among the first teams to reach out. With no general manager, team president Sandy Alderson did the early-offseason orchestrating. They had watched Realmuto for years in the NL East, first with the Marlins, then with the Phillies, and had discussed with Miami a trade centered around him at multiple points, though the talks never got too far.
Now he was available for nothing but money, which suddenly was not an issue. They were flush in Flushing under Cohen. A significant expenditure (or several) was inevitable.
“They called me right when the offseason started and said, ‘Hey, we want you to be a part of the Mets organization.’ I said, 'Great, works for me,' ” Realmuto said. “I have no problem — there were all these reports about ‘J.T. doesn’t want to play in New York.’ I never said that one time. I told them, yeah, absolutely, I would love to talk, get to know everybody in the organization.”
OK, sounds like a good start.
“I didn’t hear from them for a month after that,” Realmuto said. “Not a word. Then the stuff about McCann starts popping up on the TV.”
McCann was the second-best catcher available at the time, but he was a distant second. If you squinted and turned your head and looked at their track records, it sort of made sense. But Realmuto had been better longer. McCann had been good for two seasons — one full season, one pandemic-shortened season.
The Mets wound up giving him a contract twice that long: four years and $40.6 million.
Before that became official, they briefly rounded back to Realmuto, but he and the Mets never even talked numbers.
“Basically, they had already done a deal with James and pretty much finalized the deal before I even got a chance,” he said. “It was a weird thing. I don’t know what their plan was, but it was pretty clear their plan wasn’t to sign me. It was pretty clear from our standpoint.”
The Mets moved quickly on McCann, according to a source familiar with their thinking, because they wanted to check the catcher box on their offseason to-do list and turn their focus to, for example, George Springer and Francisco Lindor. They figured Realmuto would sign closer to spring training and they didn’t want to wait, for whatever reason.
Realmuto wound up re-signing with the Phillies — five years, $115.5 million — in late January 2021, much to the delight of his Philadelphia teammates.
“He’s the best catcher in baseball, hands down, on both sides of the ball,” Bryce Harper said Friday.
Nick Castellanos said: “There’s really no way to say this other than he’s the real deal . . . To be able to catch as much as he does, to be able to perform the way he does, to steal bases, to take the extra base, to hit an inside-the-park home run [in the NLDS] as a catcher, it’s really, really impressive. He’s a hell of an athlete.”
Realmuto this season became the second catcher to post a 20-homer/20-steal season (with 22 and 21, respectively) and led all catchers in defensive innings (with a whopping 14 games’ worth more than the next guy). McCann hit .195, never established himself as the Mets’ starter and was benched in the postseason.
That crossroads yields all sorts of what ifs.
Would these Phillies be any good, never mind on a miraculous postseason run, without Realmuto?
Where would the 2021 Mets, who were in first place for 100 days before falling apart in August, have ended up?
What could the 2022 Mets, who won 101 games but flamed out in early October, have accomplished with Realmuto behind the plate instead of McCann and Tomas Nido (and Patrick Mazeika and Michael Perez)?
“They didn’t like something they saw from me,” Realmuto said. “They didn’t really try. I don’t know.”