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De George: J.T. Realmuto’s absence just another chance for Phillies to prove their mettle

Maybe it’s natural, at 25 games over .500 in June, to try to poke holes in a baseball club. The preoccupation on the Phillies’ strength of schedule certainly has attempted that. Ditto all the “yeah buts” about their Atlanta albatross, beset by injuries, fading quickly to 10 games back.

Tuesday’s news that J.T. Realmuto will miss at least a month after knee surgery would’ve sent a shockwave through fans of the National League East leaders. But the second-order ramification was validation: If the Phillies survive this month without their starting catcher, it’s further proof that their tremendous start is not just sustainable for 162 games but well into October.

Realmuto’s absence will be felt. He’s hitting .261 with seven homers and 20 RBIs. His power numbers are down (his .411 slugging percentage is his lowest since his first full pro season), and his on-base percentage has dropped from the .340s in three of his first four seasons as a Phillie to .310 last year and .309 this year. The Phillies rank 19th in baseball in wins above replacement from the catching position per FanGraphs, though defensive numbers drag that down.

Realmuto has also regressed on that front in recent seasons, and changes to base-running rules have neutralized his once elite ability to deter base stealers. But he’s still an ideal hitter to plug into the No. 2 spot between lefties Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, at least until Trea Turner returns from a left hamstring injury absence.

How much of Realmuto’s slippage might be attributable to a body that needs surgical intervention after catching 3,700 innings plus playoffs since the start of 2021 is tough to say, and a reset of his knee with a month off might offer a physical refresh.

The Phillies will replace from within. Garrett Stubbs and Rafael Marchan will split the duties, mainly to keep continuity with the pitching staff. Concealed in the WAR figure is that Phillies pitchers lead baseball both for starting pitchers (9.1) and relievers (2.3), of which the catchers deserve an uncredited share. Leaning on Stubbs to handle the staff is the priority, come what may offensively.

Marchan, who has suffered myriad injuries in his journey, is part of that. Starting Wednesday night in Boston for the first time since Sept. 9, 2021, his career journey has been a wild ride. A taxi squad member in 2020 when he got nine plate appearances, he played in 20 games in 2021, then nothing in 2022 or 2023, in part due to a slew of injuries (last year was a fractured hamate bone). He’s played just 13 games this season, shelved in March by back pain and activated finally in late May.

Marchan caught fellow Venezuelan Ranger Suarez in that last big league start. He and Cristopher Sanchez, Wednesday’s starter, have a rapport.

“He can really catch,” manager Rob Thomson said Tuesday. “He can really throw. Defensively, he’s really good. And this year he swung the bat very well. It’s just he hasn’t been healthy for an entire year since he’s been with us.”

Should something else go wrong, the Phillies have one more insurance policy in Aramis Garcia at Lehigh Valley. The 31-year-old is a veteran of 116 MLB games with San Francisco, Oakland and Cincinnati from 2018-22. He hit .251 in Triple-A last year but is mired at .164 this year. He’s been with the organization since spring 2023.

Offense from the catching position will be a question. Stubbs is hitting .179 in 20 games. He’s slugging .196. It’s not what he’s principally paid for. The switch-hitting Marchan is a career .264 hitter in the minors, including .219 (7-for-32) this year at Lehigh Valley.

Were all else equal, Realmuto’s absence would be vexing if not daunting. Injuries are piling up, though relief is on the horizon. Turner could return this weekend after seven weeks on the injured list. Brandon Marsh is working his way back from a right hamstring strain, less severe than Turner’s. It won’t be a month of David Dahl, Edmundo Sosa and Marchan hacking away at spots six through eight in the order, even if the first two have so far filled their reserve roles beautifully.

Instead, Realmuto’s absence provides another proving opportunity. The Phillies are, by some distance, the best team in the National League. The last two years, they haven’t been in the regular season, but then have beaten supposedly superior versions of the Braves in October. It’s enough to spur rumination on the difference between a team built for the six-month slog of a season or the six-week October sprint.

The Phillies hope to be that rare creature that is both. The depth on display, and the way leaders like Schwarber and Harper and even Nick Castellanos have stepped up, shows that. And the return of a rested Realmuto, just like a fresher Turner, might make a difference down the road.

Sustaining a 113-win pace seems unlikely, one way or the other. But if the Phillies keep on that path even through these early summer headwinds, it’ll toughen the group for its October gauntlet.

Contact Matthew De George at mdegeorge@delcotimes.com.


Source: Berkshire mont

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