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Rays trade target: J.T. Realmuto

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Can the Rays comfortably trade for J.T. Realmuto?

Miami Marlins v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Rays continue to be linked to Marlins star catcher J.T. Realmuto — a surprising development at the Winter Meetings.

MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro heard the same:

The Marlins wrapped up the Winter Meetings on Thursday without making a deal for J.T. Realmuto, but they gained more clarity on what the market is for their All-Star catcher.

The field is down to about six teams, MLB.com has confirmed, and Miami keeps working toward finding a match for arguably the best catcher in the game. The Mets, Braves, Dodgers, Rays, Reds and Padres are considered the primary front-runners.

And since that time, the Mats have dropped out in favor of former Rays catcher Wilson Ramos.

J.T. Realmuto is an incredible, All-Star caliber catcher at a tier higher than Ramos. The Rays should be interested, just as every team should, but it’s fair to ask: Why do the Rays have continued involvement in these rumors?

For one, the Rays already went out and got a starting caliber catcher in Mike Zunino, but for two, that would be an incredibly expensive trade in an offseason where the Rays have already spent on pitching and exit velocity, moving their first baseman to another team without a replacement.

Another catcher is not a need, but here we are, so let’s dig in.

J.T. Realmuto’s Trade Value

Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs provided an excellent write up on J.T. Realmuto’s trade value earlier this offseason that should be revisited. Here are the highlights:

The first step is to establish a market value for Realmuto, as if he were a free agent and would only accept a two-year deal. Steamer projects Realmuto for 3.7 WAR in 2019, which I think can reasonably be pushed to 4.0 with framing. Call it 3.5 to 4.0 in 2020, as well, since he’s still in the prime years.

A $9- to $10-million dollar per WAR figure is a generic value across all 30 teams, but with the supply/demand at catcher, motivated contenders with money to spend, and the short-term nature of the contract (along with the comp picks and negotiating window), you could argue that the retail price of this projection (two years, $70-80 million) is a starting point. I would think the bidding would settle somewhere under $90 million in this hypothetical situation.

[...] If we use round numbers and say Realmuto is worth $85 million and is getting paid $15 million, that’s a $70 million asset value, probably lower, as both numbers are on the aggressive side.

McDaniel went on to cover what each team could offer to meet that value and suggest a Rays package of LHP/1B Brendan McKay or RHP Brent Honeywell, and OF Jesus Sanchez; in other words, two Top-50 prospects.

With either pitcher, McDaniel compiles something north of $80 million in trade value, and by his own admission, the likely value of Realmuto is probably closer to $70 million or even less, so I propose a different conversation.

What if the best prospect in the deal is Sanchez?

Well, then the trade needs to be more complicated.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Do the Rays have what the Marlins want?

The Marlins have been aggressive in their shopping of Realmuto, at least according to the various rumors, seeking names like Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers and Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo of the Mets.

And why not? Frisaro, again:

The Marlins have not budged on their demands for Realmuto, who is entering his second year of arbitration. [...] the Marlins are open to the best overall package

The new and evolving Miami front office has every right to shoot for the stars, but they also (likely) have to come down eventually, and it may be in Tampa Bay where the best breadth of opportunity lies if no big name is available.

And as teams back off the Marlins demands, the Rays offer appears to become more palatable

Before we move on, let’s talk player trade values. FanGraphs recently featured an updated prospect value analysis (including a value of $9 million per WAR). This coincides with Kiley McDaniel’s analysis above. We will use these values for the rest of the article.

The Rays may be unwilling to deal a top arm from their future rotation (as is the Rays way of relying on pitching from the system), but they have shown a willingness to move Top-50 prospect OF Jesus Sanchez, as he has been heavily rumored to be available for the right asset this offseason.

Sanchez represents something like $30 million in trade value on his own, per FanGraphs.

Next, it’s said the Marlins want a major league ready piece, and the Rays have somewhat of a logjam at 2B/3B with Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, Christian Arroyo, Brandon Lowe, the veteran Matt Duffy, and the newly acquired Yandy Diaz all projected for major league playing time.

The Marlins play in what is now a stacked NL East and will be in need for top, regular talent to get back into playoff contention. That narrows their focus to pedigree players with years of control remaining, likely Robertson, Arroyo, or the helium of Lowe. Let’s bookmark the value of one of these pieces as something like $25-30 million, which is the going rate of a Top-100, 50 FV position player (where 50 FV is an average major leaguer).

From there, the Rays would be wise to pad the trade with, or deal directly from, some of the prospects who will need to be added to the 40-man roster in the 2019 offseason, which represents a future roster crunch. We already saw the Rays use this strategy in the prospects dealt for Tommy Pham at the trade deadline.

Some of the more notable names for next year’s roster crunch include:

These FV grades represent the 2018 mid-season update from FanGraphs, and may adjust up or down based on their upcoming evaluation. For instance, Brujan is a Top-50 candidate, and Gomez was recently named a top-10 Rays prospect by Baseball America, while Nathaniel Lowe showcased his talents after this list was updated with a strong performance at Triple-A. Fox, likewise, could see his major league projection continue to bloom in the eyes of FanGraphs rankings. Scratch all of those names off the list.

As for the rest, some will be best used as trade bait, and the acquisition of J.T. Realmuto represents another opportunity for just that.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Building a Rays trade for Realmuto

Moving top prospects — as McDaniel suggests will be necessary — would likely be too great a cost for the cash-strapped Rays who need these top prospects to keep them afloat as a competitive franchise year-in and year-out.

However, the Rays have a deep enough farm system to cobble a competitive trade offer together, given their infield depth at the major league level, and their desire to move various pieces around.

There’s a potential for a major and minor league combination to swing a deal, but let’s take a prospect focus first. Based on the above, a potential Rays trade offer could reasonably be made with the following prospects:

  • OF Jesus Sanchez — 50 FV (No. 47 overall) — $30 million
  • 2B/LF Brandon Lowe — 50 FV (No. 70 overall) — $25 million
  • Various 2019 Rule 5 prospects (2B Nick Solak; CF Garrett Whitley; more?)

I don’t believe this is enough to satiate the Marlins fans or front office, but it’s at least fair in terms of breadth.

If you’re Miami, you at least consider it because the risk is diversified, but it’s crazy-town to think no other team in baseball would top a Rays offer of two prospects ranked in the No. 40-70 range.

The Reds could offer RHP Hunter Greene and 2B Shed Long and match the Rays. The Braves could offer one of four different highly regarded pitchers and OF Drew Waters to beat the Rays. The Padres have a treasure chest to deal from; the Dodgers have the big names Miami apparently wants — and therein lies the rub.

The unknown is how elite of a player the Marlins are looking for in return. If it’s a high-school-first-round-pedigree pitcher, the Rays have a few of those in the system. If it’s a top pitching prospect close to the majors, the Rays could demur and offer Honeywell after all, but other teams have more.

For the Rays to win a deal for Realmuto, the other teams involved need to follow the Mets lead and back away.

One interesting wrinkle to all this could be if the Marlins prioritize receiving a catcher back to help their roster continue to develop, which is something Miami’s President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill explained to Joe Frisaro at the Winter Meetings:

“You want to make sure that no matter what happens, you’re covering an important part of your club. And that you have a person who is going to take care of your pitchers as you continue to build. That means your pitchers continue to mature and turn into the championship pieces you think they can be.”

Every team in on Realmuto also has a catcher to trade, but how likely is it that the Rays would flip Zunino in hopes of landing Realmuto? If the Rays did include Mike Zunino, the could likely attribute $20 million in trade value, which covers the catch-all third bullet above, and maybe that gets the job done.

  • C Mike Zunino — 2.0 WAR projection in 2019, two years remaining
  • OF Jesus Sanchez — 50 FV (No. 47 overall) — $30 million
  • 2B/LF Brandon Lowe — 50 FV (No. 70 overall) — $25 million

But the Rays do not need Zunino to absorb the value in the trade. In fact, the Rays would be better served to move other pieces, as noted above. Besides, if the Marlins want a veteran with a strong reputation to develop their pitching staff, there are free agents who can answer that call far more willingly.

Let’s stop going in circles. The Rays aren’t getting Realmuto.

The Rays can build a fair offer but the Marlins don’t want a fair offer. Unless that changes, move along.