Rating The Return: J.T. Realmuto

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In the early stages of not the organization’s first rebuild but the first being orchestrated by a new ownership headed by Derek Jeter and thereby the first being done properly and completely, without holding on to pieces and hopes and dreams of cores past, the Marlins entered this offseason holding one of baseball’s biggest trade chips: JT Realmuto. Lauded as one of, if not the best backstop in baseball by way of a 4.8 WAR which led baseball in 2018, a .277/.340/.484 slash line (3rd/7th/2nd league-wide among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances) 21 homers, and a 38% CS% gun behind the plate and still under club control for two more years, the Marlins’ asking price was understandably sky-high and it remained as such. Winter wore on. The holidays came and went. The winter meetings came and went. Camp dates and the spring training schedules were announced. And still, the Marlins’ asking price persisted, even when the rumor mill ran ice cold. Don Mattingly even got in on the facade, hinting at Realmuto possibly beginning the year in Miami.

“For me, I’m ecstatic right now, because I feel like we’re walking into camp with J.T. again,” Mattingly said. “He gives us a better chance to win and grow as an organization.”

Finally, on February 7th, Michael Hill’s patience were rewarded when a deal was reached with the Philadelphia Phillies to send Realmuto north for three young arms, two which approach from in front of the plate and one from behind. Among the haul is the the team’s consensus top prospect Sixto Sanchez, an established big league backstop Jorge Alfaro and another member of the Phillies’ top 25, Will Stewart.

Herein, we take a closer look at all three pieces and give the deal a final grade (not-so-spoiler alert: it’s very much a passing mark).

RHP Sixto Sanchez
2018 (A+) – 46.2 IP, 2.51 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 45/11 K/BB

Sanchez is a Phillies’ 2015 international signee out of the Dominican at the ripe age of 16. After breaking into pro ball mostly in relief in his home country in his draft year (25.2 IP, 4.56 ERA, 1.48 WHIP), it didn’t take Sixto long to start making a name for himself stateside. In 2016, pitching exclusively from the rotation, a 17-year-old Sanchez became the Gulf Coast League’s best pitcher, tossing to a 0.50 ERA via a 0.76 WHIP, a 90.7 LOB% and an 18.6 K/BB%. Sanchez accomplished all of this as the single youngest player on his circuit.

In 2017, Sixto made the jump to full-season Ball, beginning the year with the Lakewood BlueClaws. In 13 South Atlantic League appearances, all starts, he went 67 IP while holding down a 2.41 ERA. That mark was due to his absurd 0.82 WHIP and and equally ridiculous 64/18 K/BB which proved that his dominance wasn’t exclusive to the rookie ball ranks. Among pitchers with at least 60 IP, Sanchez’s WHIP ranked fourth league-wide, his 21.5 K/BB% ranked 10th and his 2.35 FIP ranked third. Those marks earned Sanchez a look at the A+ level to end the year.

Following his 5 GS, 27.2 IP, 4.55 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 20/9 K/BB cup of coffee, Sanchez returned to the Clearwater Threshers this past season. Sixto began the season well, managing a 2.51 ERA in his first eight starts which lasted a total of 46.2 IP by way of a 1.07 WHIP and 45/11 K/BB, further proving his ability to grow and adapt to surroundings even at such a young age. But during a start in early June, Sanchez suffered a shoulder injury that would wind up claiming the remainder of his season. The only action Sanchez has seen since has been in the Florida instructional league. It was the hope of the Phillies that Sixto could make up for some lost time during this past Arizona Fall League season, but after suffering a setback due to a separate injury to his collarbone, his trip to the Valley of the Sun was canceled. Formerly viewed as an untouchable, the Phillies took Sanchez’s recent past into account and decided to make him the centerpiece in this deal for Realmuto. 

It’s quite obvious what the Marlins see in Sixto. The owner of a 70-grade fastball that he throws two different ways, with four seams which he can regularly ramp up to triple digits and to as high as 102 and with two seams, a pitch which owns filthy late arm-side tailing run and sink, the 20-year-old also has a well-developed breaking arsenal. Sanchez’s best secondary is a power slider that comes in at 89-92 MPH and which hits the spot with 11-5 run. He also has the makings of a plus mix-in changeup that sits in the 90-93 MPH range that he can place on either corner with late fading action.

Viewed, even at his young age, as having the ceiling of Pedro Martinez (link) and regularly drawing comps to Johnny Cueto and the late José Fernandez, Sanchez has a huge ceiling, that of a clear-cut ace. While his recent injuries have slightly delayed him, Sanchez is still just 20 years old a huge primary weapon and a matching command tool with an already-plus but still-growing breaking arsenal. A penultimate gamer with a bulldog mentality and fantastic work ethic and the reputation of a guy who wants to have the ball in his hand as much as possible, we foresee Sixto starting the year in A+ Jupiter. From there, health permitting, the sky is the limit. With further success in repetition and limiting overthrows and the further growth of his breakers, Sanchez should be a quick mover to the AA level, definitively by the All-Star break. Overall, we like Sanchez to suit up in a Marlins uni as early as September but, given his age, more realistically next season. Nevertheless, Sanchez is immediately the top pitching prospect in the organization.

C Jorge Alfaro
2018 (MLB) – .262/.324/.407, 10 HR, 16 2B, 37 RBI, 138/18 K/BB

Alfaro is a a 25-year-old backstop who was born on June 11, 1993, just after the first pitch in Marlins history which occurred on April 5 that same year. A quarter century later, Alfaro is the Marlins’ clear-cut starter behind the dish. 

Signed by the Rangers out of Colombia in 2010, Alfaro garnered a $1.3 million signing bonus, which set a record for any prospect discovered in his home country. Originally a middle infielder, Rangers scouting noticed the projection in Alfaro’s frame and in his huge throwing arm, thus tasking him with catching duties. After breaking in to pro ball in the Dominican Summer League in 2010 where he slashed just .221/.243/.291 with a 48/5 K/BB as a DH while he learned his new position behind the scenes, the Rangers took a leap of faith in Alfaro’s raw tools, promoting him to stateside ball. There, as an 18-year-old playing against competition that were, on average 3+ years older than him, Alfaro fared well, hitting .300/.345/.481 with six homers and 23 RBI. Despite showing plenty of rawness on the defensive side in his in-game action at catcher (12 passed balls, 54/15 SB/CS) and even though his slash line was largely due to a fortunate .420 BABIP and while his inflated strikeout totals persisted (54/4 K/BB), Alfaro’s solid peripherals with the bat stemming from a solid power-first approach at such a young age earned him some recognition, including being named the 8th best prospect in the Northwest League by Baseball America.

A year later, Alfaro made his full-season A ball debut spending nearly the entire season with the South Atlantic League’s Hickory Crawdads. There, he hit a respectable .258/.338/.452. Most importantly, this is where Alfaro’s 70-grade power tool began to rear its head as he collected 16 homers and 22 doubles. It was also where the plus-plus throwing arm the Rangers saw early on in his development started to provide rewards as he threw out 36% of potential base stealers.

Another offseason and another promotion later, Alfaro joined the A+ ranks as a Myrtle Beach Pelican in 2013. There, Alfaro furthered his reputation as a pull-hearty power-first swinger who trades swings and misses for fence-clearing and gap-reaching contact, as he struck out 100 times in 398 ABs but also homered 13 times and collected 22 doubles. He ended the season with AA Frisco, preluding a .261/343/.443 line with the squad he was slated to spend 2015 with. Things were going according to plan for Alfaro in 2015 as he was slashing .258/.324/.438 with 15 doubles and 5 homers with Frisco. However, it was then, just 49 games into his AA tenure, that Alfaro would suffer an ankle injury that required him to go under the knife.

June 10th, 2015 would wind up being Alfaro’s final game in a Rangers-affiliated uniform as on July 31st, the rehabbing backstop was included in the trade that sent Cole Hamels to Texas. Bearing the same uniform number that Realmuto did in his final year as a Marlin (11), Alfaro displayed his infinite athleticism and drive. Not only did Alfaro come back from the injury that afforded surgery and cost him most of nearly a season’s worth of development,he came back stronger than ever without missing a step. In 2016, as a AA Reading Fightin’ Phil, Alfaro enjoyed his longest and best season as a pro. After hitting .285/.325/.428 with 15 homers, the 23-year-old was rewarded with his first MLB call-up. In his first 29 games in red and white, Alfaro slashed an impressive .318/.360/.514 with his first five MLB long balls, carving himself out as the Phillies’ unquestionable starting backstop in 2018.

In that capacity, a 25-year-old fully grown Alfaro didn’t disappoint. In 108 games, all as a catcher, he slashed .262/.324/.407 with 10 homers and 16 doubles. Once again though, hitting in the slugger-friendly Citizens Bank Park, his success was fueled by a friendly .406 BABIP. All the while, Alfaro’s gargantuan K rates persisted as he struck out 36% of the time and walked at just a 4.8% pace. On the defensive side of the ball, Alfaro caught base stealers 26% of the time. According to StatCast, Alfaro’s 90.8 MPH average velo from behind the plate led baseball and his 1.94 average pop time on throws to second base ranked third.

2019 will pose a new challenge for the free-swinging long ball threat: proving he can sustain power-hitting success in a more pitcher friendly environment while continuing to prove his surgically repaired ankle will not inhibit his pop times and while further improving his receiving and defensive plate coverage skills. All of that said, Alfaro proved both pre and post injury in the minors that he has the athleticism needed to succeed at the MLB level. At the very least, he provides an all-or-nothing bat to the middle of the order and an arm that strikes fear in the hearts of those thinking to take a base on on. Under club control through 2023, Alfaro should at least serve as an advantageous bridge to Will Banfield. With very questionable contact rates but unquestionable power potential on top of growing defensive instincts stemming from natural arm strength and what has become plus arm accuracy, Alfaro should man a spot somewhere between 5-8 in the order this season, a campaign which should go a long way in proving exactly where his future lies. We like Alfaro to hit somewhere in the .270/.330/.470 range with 20/30+ power. We cap the 25-year-old’s canon around 35% CS%.

RHP Will Stewart
2018 (A) – 113.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 90/21 K/BB

Sanchez and Alfaro were agreed to early on in trade negotiations with the Phillies but some squabbling over the inclusion of a third piece that held even the advanced talks between the two organizations up even longer.

While the Phillies balked on the inclusion of another one of their top 10 such as Bohm, Moniak, Medina and Haseley, the Marlins were able to sway them on Stewart, a 21-year-old lefty coming off his best year as a pro.

Drafted by the Phillies in round 20 of the 2015 draft, Stewart hails from Hazel Green High in the unincorporated community of Hazel Green on the northeastern tip of Alabama. Stewart is the first baseball player drafted directly out of HGHS. After putting ink to paper, Stewart broke in to pro ball with the Gulf Coast League Phillies, working exclusively in relief. In 12 appearances and 20.2 IP, he had a 4.79 ERA, 1.6 WHIP and 20/15 K/BB.

Stewart stuck in the GCL as an 18-year-old in 2016 where he split time between the rotation and the pen. In his 11 appearances, Stewart began to show positive adjustments, holding down a 4.06 ERA in 44 IP. His WHIP shrunk to 1.2 and his K/BB improved to 35/19. The owner of a 33% groundball rate a season previous, that figure improved to 52%.

In 2017 Stewart jumped to short season A ball with the Williamsport CrossCutters. There, for the first time, he worked exclusively as a starter. In 13 appearances, he lasted a total of 60 IP and held down a 4.18 ERA via a 1.48 WHIP and 58/25 K/BB. In his 3.60 FIP and even more improved near-70% ground ball rate and the damage that was done against him coming via a .333 BABIP, the Phillies saw enough to task Stewart with full-season ball this past year. Stewart did not let the Phillies’ confidence down. In fact, he made the organization look like geniuses. In 20 starts with the Lakewood BlueClaws of the A hitter-friendly South Atlantic League, the 21-year-old broke out with an 8-1, 2.06 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 90/21 K/BB campaign. All of this came in twice as many innings as Stewart had ever thrown in a single season (113.2). On league leaderboards, his ERA and WHIP each ranked 2nd and his 4.29 K/BB ranked 5th. Most encouraging though, Stewart’s 62.1 ground ball ratio led the Sally League.

At age 21, Stewart isn’t a guy who will blow you away with any one pitch or tool. However, he is a guy who throws everything with confidently well thanks to plus tools. From a smooth windup and downhill plane, Stewart puts every bit of his 6’2”, 175 pound frame to work for him, extending every one of his appendages to create deception. Stewart’s arsenal consists of a 90-94 MPH four-seamer, an 85-88 MPH cutter that holds at least 50-grade movement, an 80-84 MPH frisbee slider, a slow 74-77 MPH curve that acts as a mix-in eephus type piece that sneaks up on and completely baffles hitters and his best pitch, an 82-86 MPH circle-change that he feels and selects well, inducing plenty of ground balls with via advantageous placement on the corners. He is careful not to overthrow any of his pitches and repeats his easy delivery with fluidity.

With a good feel and IQ for selecting pitches and a good psychiatric view into the mind of his opposition, this southpaw lines up well as a ceiling middle-rotation starter with the floor of a back-end anchor. Expect Stewart to start 2019 in A+ Jupiter.

Although it was a painstaking process, the Marlins played this situation beautifully, biding their time and eventually landing some very important pieces to the core of young talent they are building: a bonafide ace, a strong-armed power hitting backstop that will at least allow the club to take their time with Banfield but who could assume the reigns as their long-term catcher and a potentially budding middle-back end rotation starter coming off an impressive breakout year.

Grade: A

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