The Phillies are once again dealing with the loss of perhaps their most indispensable player.
All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, whose departure from the lineup with a hip injury coincided with the team’s September collapse last season, has been diagnosed with a broken right thumb that could threaten his chance to be ready for the April 1 season opener.
Realmuto suffered the injury blocking a ball in the dirt while catching newcomer Jose Alvarado in a pre-spring training bullpen session last week in Clearwater. At the time, Realmuto thought he’d suffered just a bone bruise. Then camp officially opened on Wednesday and he had trouble throwing the baseball. He was sent for tests and they revealed what manager Joe Girardi called “a small fracture” at the base of the thumb.
The injured area will be placed in a cast on Friday and immobilized for two weeks at which time Realmuto will be re-evaluated.
“Our hope is that he will be ready for opening day, but a lot of it depends on how quickly he heals,” Girardi said in a videoconference after Thursday’s workout.
Realmuto spoke with reporters moments after Girardi. He wore a splint on his right hand. He smiled and was upbeat.
“I’m not very worried about my thumb,” he said. “So if I was a Phillies fan, I wouldn’t be too worried.
“I feel pretty confident that after the two weeks it will be healed because it already feels quite a bit better than the day it happened. It’s definitely going to heal on its own and I’m confident I’ll be back by opening day.”
Realmuto isn’t the first Phillie to suffer a broken digit in spring training. Back in early March 2004, Jim Thome suffered a broken middle finger on his right hand while taking ground balls. He missed about three weeks of camp but made it back in time for opening day.
There’s reason to believe that Realmuto could make a similarly quick recovery, but if the Phillies want to slow him down, it would be completely understandable. Top starting catchers are generally limited to between 120 and 130 starts. Realmuto could miss the first week of the season, spend a little extra time healing and getting ready and still hit that range.
“We’re going to take our time with it because — if I have to miss the first three days of the season, we’d rather do that than absolutely rush back and have something linger a little longer,” he said.
The injury comes just a few weeks after the Phillies invested $115.5 million over five years to bring back Realmuto for his age 30 through 34 seasons. Signing catchers in that age range to long deals can be risky because the position creates wear and tear on the player, but freak injuries, like one suffered blocking a pitch in the dirt, can strike at any time, no matter how mindful a manager is of his catcher’s workload.
“Some injuries you can’t avoid,” Girardi said. “You get hit by a pitch and break a bone in your hand, it doesn’t matter if you’re 20, 25, 30, 35. Some injuries are unavoidable, that’s the bottom line. Someone runs you over at the plate, that could happen at 25, 30 or 35.”
Realmuto’s injury offers an acute reminder of just how important he is to the Phillies. The team has just three catchers on its 40-man roster and he's the only regular. Andrew Knapp is the backup and Rafael Marchan is a prospect who needs minor-league reps.
In a move that was in the works before Realmuto’s injury, the Phillies signed 16-year veteran Jeff Mathis to a minor-league contract just before camp opened. Mathis is a strong defender and handler of pitchers — that’s how he’s lasted so long in the game as a career .194 hitter — and could now be in a position to make the club should Realmuto not be ready for opening day.
New COVID protocols for the 2021 season also allow teams to carry a five-man taxi squad on the road. One of those players must be a catcher and Mathis could figure in that role, as well. Either way, the Phils are happy to have the depth at an important position, though few can match what Realmuto brings.
Realmuto is widely considered the best all-around catcher in baseball. In addition to making the All-Star team in 2019, he won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at catcher. He missed 11 games with a hip flexor injury in September 2020 and the Phils went 4-7 in that stretch on their way to missing the playoffs by a single game.