Breaking Down the J.T. Realmuto Trade (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
At long last, it happened. No, no, the top free agents this winter has to offer are not signed yet. That’s not it. But, something else very important in fantasy baseball happened. After a long, long wait, the Marlins finally traded, arguably, the best catcher in all of baseball. J.T. Realmuto got his wish and was shipped to the Phillies in exchange for top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, former top catching prospect Jorge Alfaro, minor leaguer Will Stewart, and a competitive balance pick. We will dive deep into how this impacts Realmuto and Alfaro and then hit on how this affects the minor leaguers, for all you dynasty nerds out there.
Consensus Top Catcher?
Realmuto has consistently been a top catcher in fantasy since 2016, which culminated in last season’s finish as the top overall catcher. His value was driven by 1) catcher being a terrible wasteland you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy and 2) trading off some speed for power. Realmuto eclipsed the 20-homer mark for the first time in 2018, hitting 21 homers, scoring 74 runs, and driving in 74 runs — all career-highs. Of course, this power increase is notable due to Marlins Park being the worst place in all of MLB to hit a homer, and was 14% lower than the next-worse park!
His average remained consistent, and his on-base percentage saw a slight uptick due to his one-percent increase in walk rate. To round out his 5×5 profile, Realmuto’s previous calling card was approaching or surpassing double-digit steals, which he did in 2016 and 2017. However, that number dropped to a minuscule three in 2018. His average-power combo easily made up for this lack of production in stolen bases.
For the most part, Realmuto’s season looks in line with his peripherals (courtesy of FanGraphs). A .277/.340/.484 slash line was backed up by nearly a 50-point increase in ISO, a 23% line-drive rate, and a 38% hard-hit rate, which were all increases from 2017. His ISO increase was supported by a heavy increase in launch angle (from just under 10 degrees to 14.4 degrees) and an increase in exit velocity, which resulted in a 2.7% increase in barrels, to nine percent. His xwOBA sat at .354, so his .340 OBP is legit, and if he keeps improving his plate discipline, that could go even higher.
What fantasy owners are very intrigued about are Realmuto’s home/road splits. Of his 21 homers, 13 came away from home, and he had 14 more runs and 16 more RBI on the road. This increase in power will be displayed further in his new home, Citizens Bank Park. Citizens Bank is renown as a home-run friendly park, ranking fourth in the majors in 2018. Realmuto should set a new career-high in homers in his sleep. However, Citizens Bank ranked just 20th in hits, meaning that an increase in BABIP should not be a given. On the flip side, with all of his peripherals getting better, but his average decreasing, I expect an increase to the upper .290s in batting average.
With those new homers and a much better lineup, Realmuto should see a big surge in counting stats as well. He is slated to bat either third or fifth in the order, which is obviously subject to change if they sign a coveted free agent. Of course, the Phillies have a substantially better lineup than the pseudo-Triple-A team that the Marlins are putting together. It’s hard to project his RBI and runs in a singular fashion, given that we are not sure where he will be in the lineup, but we can bank on an increase from his 150 runs plus RBI. Bumping up to 175 is not out of the realm of possibility. Of course, fantasy owners are concerned about how his steals will shake out. As mentioned in my article about the Jean Segura trade, the Phillies ranked 23rd in steals. At first sight, this looks bad…until you realize that the Marlins ranked 29th! This might have more to do with the Marlins not being able to get on base, but we have to think that Realmuto approaches double-digit steals once again.
Now that the football season has ended and fantasy baseball draft season is upon us, experts are updating their ranks every day. When factoring in the experts who have updated their rankings since the trade, Realmuto’s ECR is 74 overall, up from 82 overall prior to the trade. Of course, due to position scarcity, his ADP is much higher, currently sitting in the upper 50s. Gary Sanchez is still ranked ahead of him in the catcher rankings, given his upside and being ranked as the top catcher in 2017. If you are looking for a safe floor and essentially a guaranteed top-two finish at the position, Realmuto is your guy. If you prefer to chase upside, drafting Sanchez makes more sense.
Phillies’ Pitcher Outlook
While we typically do not care much about a player’s defensive skills in fantasy, catcher is an exception. Realmuto ranked in the top 100th percentile in pop time and is considered one of the elite defensive catchers in baseball. His trade partner, Jorge Alfaro, is also one of the top defensive catchers. However, he makes his money by pitch framing, rather than with pop time. Given this trade-off, Phillies’ starters likely won’t see a significant increase nor decrease in their projections.
Alfaro in Free-fall?
Alfaro had a disappointing season in 2018, slashing .262/.324/.407, for a 96 wRC+. The Phillies felt the need to trade for Wilson Ramos, who was on the DL, to make a late postseason push. Alfaro finished 2018 with 10 homers, 35 runs, and 37 RBI.
Alfaro certainly has the potential to increase his power, as he rates as a “70” on FanGraphs’ 80-raw power scale. As you can infer, going from Philadelphia to Miami severely dampens the chances of his power being realized. Another 10 home runs should happen, but don’t bank on him getting to 20-homer power in 2019.
The main issue with Alfaro is that his K rate is an absolutely terrible, miserable 36.6 percent. Combined with a 4.8% walk rate, he has awful (yes, I found another adjective) plate discipline. He propped his average up through a .406 BABIP. That BABIP was driven by an incredible 3.3% infield flyball rate, 29% flyball rate (league averages are 10% and 35%, respectively), and a solid-but-not-spectacular 38% hard-hit rate. However, a .406 BABIP is unsustainable, so a .250 batting average (or lower) is likely.
There are some positives for Alfaro, in that he should start at least five days a week and get a chance to prove he is a top-10 or 15 catcher in the majors. He will also hit higher in the lineup than he would have in Philadelphia, which should increase his chances for runs and RBI. In this context, Alfaro has a chance to get to a combined 100 runs and RBI. However, given the pitiful lineup surrounding him, that may not be reasonable.
Since the trade, Alfaro rates as the 14th best catcher, sandwiched between Francisco Cervelli and Yan Gomes. Alfaro offers more upside than Cervelli, but the other guys in front of him (Danny Jansen, Mike Zunino, Wellington Castillo, and Francisco Mejia) offer even more upside, sliding Alfaro into his appropriate ranking.
Sixto’s Long-Term Growth
The name to get familiar with, if you aren’t already, is Sixto Sanchez. His name beckons for a pun and saying Sixto is a top “five-to” pitching prospect grades as a solid C+ joke. Sanchez is a flamethrower and has a full arsenal with breaking and offspeed pitches. He was injured for a lot of 2018, only tossing 46 innings. Those 46 innings, were fantastic, though, as he had a 2.51 ERA and 2.66 FIP to go with a 52.3% groundball rate. He may have been a little lucky, as his 2.6% HR/FB rate should regress a bit, but his 2.12 BB/9 and 18.1% K/BB ratio mitigate that. He still needs to realize his strikeout potential, as he averaged under a K per inning. To achieve his potential, he needs to show he can put a full season together and bump that K rate. The Marlins are known for being aggressive with their pitching prospects (think Jose Fernandez), so Sanchez could be in the big leagues sometime in 2020 if his 2019 goes well. He should begin the season in Double-A.
Will Stewart slides into the top 20 prospects in the Marlins farm system. He doesn’t do any one thing particularly well but did post a 2.06 ERA over 113 and 2/3 innings at Single-A. He is worth a speculative look in the deepest of dynasty leagues.