Mets should sign J.T. Realmuto in Steve Cohen’s first big move

Many tests await Steve Cohen once he assumes control of the Mets, and for the purpose of this column, let’s assume that he’ll pass the entry exam of the approval vote by other owners.

After that, before the really heavy lifting, the first test looks easy:

Sign J.T. Realmuto.

“Wow,” Joe Girardi said Tuesday afternoon, before his Phillies opened a critical series with the Mets at Citizens Bank Park, “there’s so much.”

To be fair, I wasn’t asking Girardi about the amount of money his starting catcher Realmuto, the industry’s top free agent for the upcoming winter, should expect to pull down on the open market. Rather, I inquired of the former Yankees skipper, a catcher in his day, what impressed him most about the 29-year-old Realmuto.

“I think his durability is incredible,” said Girardi, who then acknowledged the irony of that statement, as Realmuto didn’t start Tuesday due to a mild strain of his hip flexor. “Just his preparation. A lot of times players are really gifted but [he] is really gifted and the preparation is outstanding. His homework that he does in how to get opposing hitters out. His homework that he does on when he can run and steal bases, who he goes from first to third on, studying the opposing pitcher that he’s facing that day.”

There’s more to come from that answer, yet to climb back to the peak of this issue, Cohen must decide who will run the Mets’ baseball operations. Unless Cohen opts to retain current general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, that person will have to make calls on deputies as well as a manager (even if it’s keeping Luis Rojas). And depending on the timeline of that owner vote, these crucial choices might be rendered after the start of free agency, which will be five days after the completion of the World Series.

The good news for Cohen is that any candidate who disagrees with signing Realmuto to a record deal for a catcher should be automatically disqualified.

Joe Mauer set the bar for catchers over 10 years ago when he signed an eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins, bypassing free agency. Realmuto easily will beat that annual average value of $23 million and is a good bet to surpass the total package, even if it’s for fewer than eight years.

J.T. RealmutoGetty Images

Obvious red lights exist when you look at how catchers have aged in the drug-testing era. Mauer stopped catching in his age-31 season, the fourth year of his contract, due to concussions. Buster Posey, whom the Giants signed to an eight-year, $159 million extension in 2013 (Van Wagenen was his agent), slipped after his age-30 season in 2017, as did Cardinals icon Yadier Molina after his age-30 season in 2013.

What mitigates this is that Cohen, whom you might have heard is loaded even for an owner, can afford the slippage — shoot, he can afford to just release him and eat vast sums of money — in return for the reward of immediately firing up Mets fans and Jacob deGrom as well as weakening the rival Phillies with this signing. And Realmuto, as per his current manager, need not remain at catcher to offer significant value.

“He’s really an amazing athlete,” Girardi said. “I think you could put him a number of certain positions and feel comfortable with him there and know that he could do a really good job. And you don’t say that about all catchers. I know they didn’t say that about me.”

It was Phillies owner John Middleton who joked to USA Today a couple of years ago about being “a little bit stupid” when it came to aggressively pursuing free agents, and he wound up signing Bryce Harper to a roof-raising, 13-year, $330 million contract that offseason. Cohen, from everything we know about him, wouldn’t mind being similarly stupid in going wallet-to-wallet with Middleton for Realmuto’s services.

Cohen couldn’t ask for a simpler initial test of his mettle, his seriousness, his desire to differentiate himself from the people he’s replacing. Can he accept this gift of a gauge and give Mets fans the first of what they hope is many presents? It’s tantalizing enough to compel Mets fans, for the first time in forever, to look forward to the Hot Stove season.