JT Realmuto laid the groundwork for a big free agent payday for Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia Phillies wide receiver JT Realmuto understands better than anyone what awaits Willson Contreras in the offseason.

Barring a last-minute contract extension, the Chicago Cubs are expected to trade Contreras, an impending free agent, before the Aug. 2 trade deadline. He sets up the Cubs catcher to hit free agency in about three months.

As Realmuto entered his final year of arbitration in 2020 with the Phillies, he made it clear that he wanted to move the free-agent market forward with any deal he signed on the open market. In January 2021, Realmuto signed a five-year, $115.5 million contract two months before his 30th birthday.

Realmuto’s $23.1 million average annual value set a new record for recipients. He also became the third receiver to sign a nine-figure contract, joining Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, and the third to earn an AAV above $21 million (Mauer and Yadier Molina).

“You always want to do your best to help the next generation of guys, and I was able to move the bar a little bit,” Realmuto told the Tribune on Friday about his free-agent deal. “Hopefully Willson continues to have a great season and can raise that bar for the guys that come after him. Just something we take pride in to keep looking for the next generation.”

All of these contract markers set the stage for what Contreras, who turns 31 in May, could look for in free agency this offseason.

Since Contreras debuted on June 17, 2016, he is second among catchers in slugging percentage (.458), third in home runs (109), fourth in RBIs (345) and plate appearances (2,711), and sixth in fielding percentage. on base (.351). His 114 OPS+ trails only Will Smith, Yasmani Grandal and Posey. Contreras also ranks third in the National League and sixth in the MLB in innings caught during that span. Realmuto and Molina occupy the first two places.

Contreras’ solo homer in the fourth inning on Friday, his 14th of the season, tied the game against the Phillies in the first game after the All-Star break.

“He has taken another step this year,” Realmuto said. “Offensively, he’s been so consistent as a receiver, so it’s been a lot of fun to watch. I’m interested to see how the year ends and see where it goes next year.”

Realmuto believes that the perception of offensive catchers has changed thanks to the addition of the designated hitter in the National League. The designated hitter job gives catchers more opportunities to keep their legs fresh while keeping their bat in the lineup. Of Contreras’ 77 starts, 29 have been as a designated hitter.

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“That’s one way receivers could get more compensation than they have in the past,” Realmuto said. “He’s going to stay fresh longer than most guys could just because he didn’t grow up catching since he was 6 years old. There’s a little less wear and tear on his knees and legs.”

Realmuto’s free agent status last year will likely differ in one notable respect. The Phillies didn’t trade him before he tested free agency, eventually re-signing him three months into the 2020 season. In the abbreviated season, the Phillies were in the playoff hunt and ultimately finished within a game of reaching the postseason.

Looking back, Realmuto seemed unsure if being traded would have affected his chances or his desire to return to Philly.

“As a player, if my team wasn’t winning and they were like, ‘Hey, we want to move you to a team that’s competing so you can try for a chance to win this year, but we want to re-sign you. off-season,’ I would actually respect that,” Realmuto said. “I would appreciate the fact that they want to give me a chance to make it to the postseason and they would still like me enough to want to bring me back next year.”

In Contreras’ case, an impending trade likely spells the end of his career with the Cubs. An offseason reunion once Contreras assesses his free-agent market seems unlikely. If the Cubs spend on a big-money contract, other big names will be available to address the roster’s needs, especially pitchers and shortstops.

Realmuto has some advice for Contreras when he officially becomes a free agent: Be patient.

“You feel like when you get there you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re here, free agency starts today. It’s going to be fast and wild,’ and it’s not always like that,” Realmuto said. “It doesn’t happen as fast as one would expect. But once things start moving, it gets fast. It’s everything you’d hope it would be. It just happens a little later than most guys expect.”

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