Phillies boss John Middleton is OK with Bryce Harper speaking out for J.T. Realmuto


Saturday's Phillies' victory over the Miami Marlins included an important home run by J.T. Realmuto and more message-sending from his biggest advocate, Bryce Harper.

If you dig deep into the video following Realmuto's three-run bomb in the seventh inning you can see Harper crossing home plate ahead of Realmuto, raising his right hand and making the motion of someone signing something.

Perhaps a check?

Oh, yeah. You can take that to the bank.

Just a few miles down the street from Independence Hall, Harper can be seen laughing after doing his John Hancock imitation.

This was just Harper's latest bit of performance art as he tries to implore Phillies management to extend Realmuto's contract. The All-Star catcher will be a free agent in the fall.

Earlier this month, Harper wore a T-shirt with Realmuto's name and number on the back for several workouts. When Realmuto clubbed a homer in an intrasquad game, Harper shouted, "Sign him!" and the words echoed all over empty Citizens Bank Park.

Even the fans have gotten into the act.

Before Friday night's opener, a bed sheet emblazoned with the SIGN JT hung on a fence across the street from the parking facility utilized by Phillies players and staff. A truck carrying the same message circled the ballpark a week earlier.

For obvious reasons, Harper's pleas to sign Realmuto have gotten the most attention. The guy knows how to grab eyeballs and send a message.

All of it makes you wonder what he'll do next.

It also makes you wonder if he's crossing the line just a little bit, putting on the spot the very people who signed his mammoth $330-million paycheck sixteen months ago.

Managing partner John Middleton was asked about Harper's none-too-subtle message-sending during an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia on Friday.

Do Harper's theatrics put pressure on the Phillies to get a deal done with Realmuto?

"No," Middleton said. "Listen, one of the things I love about Bryce is his competitiveness. And, in fact, it's what makes him a great player, coupled with his innate ability. It's what makes him a great teammate. We all recognize that. It's a big reason the fans love him, because he's so competitive.

"I think this is just an expression of his competitiveness. He wants to surround himself with the best players. Who wouldn't? And he's not just saying it about J.T. He's saying, 'Bring up Spencer Howard. Bring up Alec Bohm.' He wants the best players here. That's understandable so I have no problem with Bryce's comments."

It was pointed out to Middleton that he and Harper forged a personal bond a year ago. Maybe Harper could just pick up the phone and speak with the boss.

"And how do you know we're not chatting?" Middleton said. "You don't. I'm not breaking news. I'm just saying when I talk to people, it's confidential. You can't assume we're not talking."

The Phillies and Realmuto were in the midst of contract negotiations when the game shut down in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When baseball's moratorium on transactions and negotiations was lifted in late June, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak pointed out that the "landscape" in the industry was different — revenues had dried up — and "we'll have to see how that manifests itself in our discussions." On July 9, Realmuto, while professing his love for the Phillies, admitted that talks between the two sides had not progressed and that, barring a change, he was prepared to test the free-agent market in the fall. He reiterated those comments after Saturday's game.

An interesting development as it relates to free agency in the COVID world, and Realmuto by extension, occurred on Wednesday when news of Mookie Betts' 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers broke. Betts' signing left Realmuto as arguably the prize of this winter's free-agent market.

Harper had a pointed reaction to Betts' extension.

"I think the deal just goes to show that teams can still afford players at this moment and in this trying time of COVID," he said Wednesday.

Realmuto had a similar reaction to the deal Saturday.

"It was definitely positive to see for baseball, knowing that teams still do have that money," he said. "Like I mentioned a few weeks ago, I still think that the teams at the top of the market are going to be willing to spend money. Some teams are going to take advantage of the situation, where half or even three-quarters of the league might not be as interested in spending as much money. Other teams are really going to go for it and push for those players. It was definitely good to see him get what he deserves."

Klentak used the word "creative" in reacting to Betts' contract. About one-third of the contract is deferred without interest and the backloaded salary structure seems to take into account a world that does not currently have a COVID vaccine but might in time. A vaccine will bring fans back into ballparks — in all sports — and raise the revenues that fuel salaries.

"It appears to me that it was a very creative and collaborative solution that really reflects the uniqueness of 2020," Klentak said. "I should probably just leave it there because that's a player in somebody else's uniform, and I don't know all the particulars of what went into it, but I'll kind of let it stand there."

Middleton on Friday was asked if the Betts deal put any pressure on the Phillies to make a deal with Realmuto.

"I don't feel pressure to make a deal one way or another," he said. "I think you have to make a good deal. 

"In the Betts deal, $120 million of that $365 million is deferred — for years after the contract expires. In fact, the last payment is in 2044. And also, those deferred payments are interest-free. So that's a significantly lower valued contract than the $365 million headline or the $30-plus million average annual value. The reality is that it's much less."

The Players Association recognizes the present-day value of Betts' contract at $306.7 million. If you have an old college roommate who works in the banking industry, he could crunch some numbers that would suggest the present-day value of Betts' deal is even lower based on a different discount rate.

Middleton said COVID has "thrown a curveball" at all businesses, not just sports.

"I think (Betts' contract) reflects the reality of the economic uncertainty that we find ourselves in today," Middleton said. "And one thing I really give credit to the two parties for is that they were creative, creative in ways that protected the player, but also creative in ways that protected the team. It was a very, I thought, ingenious deal."

It's important to point out that Realmuto is not the player Betts is. His next deal is not going to be in Betts' stratosphere. But that doesn't mean that Realmuto isn't seeking a very large number as he looks to raise the bar on all catchers' salaries. We've heard the numbers for months. A multi-year deal north of Joe Mauer's $23 million AAV — and possibly well north of that — seems to be Realmuto's target. It's a huge expenditure in the middle of a pandemic, a huge expenditure for any team. The Phillies, Middleton said, will lose more than $100 million this season. In fact, he revealed that his family and his partners, the Buck family, have each kicked in $50 million to underwrite this season's losses.

Middleton was asked if he believed the "creativity" that the Dodgers and Betts used in getting their deal done could facilitate a deal with Realmuto.

"Sure," he said. "There's no reason why not."

Time will tell if Realmuto and his representatives share that belief.

Time will tell if John Hancock — err, Bryce Harper — gets his man, if the Phillies get their man, if the guy with the bedsheet on Darien Street gets his man.

"Everybody, and I mean teammates, coaching staff, front office, owners, fans, everybody loves J.T.," Middleton said. "They love him as a player, love him as a person. He knows how I feel about him and how the organization feels about him. We know how he feels about us. It's a great basis to begin a negotiation and we're going to leave it at that."

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