CLEARWATER, Fla. -- On the day he found out he was traded, J.T. Realmuto finished lunch, hustled home, loaded his car with pre-packed bags, got in one final workout, said goodbye to his grandparents and started driving. He literally couldn't wait to start his new baseball life.
About 1,300 miles and 17 hours later, Realmuto, his wife, Lexi, and his baby girl, Gracie, arrived here. The next morning, less than two days after that phone call to tell him he was the newest member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Realmuto found his locker and began his first day with perhaps the most interesting team in baseball.
If they're not that, then the Phillies -- whose winter began with their owner declaring the franchise was willing to spend "stupid money," continued with the acquisition of four front-line talents and marches on with the pursuit of two players seeking the largest contracts in baseball history -- are at the very least in the most interesting division, one made so by something so seemingly novel.
The National League East is replete with teams that want to win. The New York Mets spent the winter remaking themselves through bold, for-the-moment maneuvers. The Washington Nationals by themselves have forked over more money this offseason than half of the teams in baseball combined. The Atlanta Braves return almost the entirety of their division-winning roster, gave Josh Donaldson $23 million for one year and have been in the middle of manifold trade talks this winter, including for Realmuto.
Hello, J.T. Realmuto.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 12, 2019
From the first day of Phillies camp, their biggest acquisition (thus far) is taking BP and impressing manager Gabe Kapler, who's leaning up against the cage. (h/t producer @FraneyESPN and photographer Jose Collazo) pic.twitter.com/R6pdrXQPpF
Philadelphia, meanwhile, remade its roster through a combination of signings (outfielder Andrew McCutchen for $50 million, reliever David Robertson for $23 million) and trades (shortstop Jean Segura from Seattle, Realmuto from Miami) -- and what makes the Phillies so fascinating isn't just those moves but the one that could complement them. The Phillies, sources told ESPN, remain in pursuit of free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, each of whom continues to seek a $300 million-plus deal. In other words: stupid money.
And while the Phillies' improvements thus far may be enough to hoist them over the Mets, Nationals and Braves, the addition of Harper or Machado would add an entirely new dimension to an already-good team. Their starting pitching, led by Aaron Nola, complemented by Jake Arrieta and awaiting a Nick Pivetta breakout, doesn't match New York's or Washington's but is plenty adequate. Their bullpen, with a full year of Seranthony Dominguez and the addition of Robertson, is better. Their offense, thanks to McCutchen and Segura, gets a boost. And their defense, which was so obscene televised Phillies games last season came with a TV-MA rating, cannot possibly be that awful again.
Harper or Machado would add at least a few marginal wins, and those truly matter for teams in the Phillies' position. Say Harper or Machado is worth three wins above replacement more than the incumbents, which is a reasonable and conservative figure. Three wins is three wins in theory, but the three wins that take a team from 85 to 88, or thereabouts, are worth a lot more than the ones that make a 70-win team a 73-win team. In a division like the NL East (or the NL Central for that matter), those wins may well make up the difference between an October spent chasing a ring and one watching those doing so on TV.
Realmuto said Tuesday that he was excited to join a team with championship aspirations, words not associated with the Phillies since the early 2010s. Those words happen to also be exceedingly reasonable. Without Harper or Machado, the Phillies are good enough to place themselves among the five best teams in the NL, which makes them good enough to claw through a league with no clear juggernauts, which makes them good enough to leverage the short nature of the World Series and emerge from it with some hardware. With Harper or Machado, they're more than good enough. They're the odds-on favorite in the East.
There's a sense in Phillies camp that now is their time, one in which they transition from aspirational to achievers. Nothing would fortify that notion like Harper or Machado doing what Realmuto did Tuesday: slipping on a Phillies jersey.
Harper, in fact, let it be known publicly that the Nationals were making a mistake when the team didn't trade for the catcher before the 2018 deadline. Now Realmuto is with a fierce division rival, and he returned the favor, saying of Harper: "I would definitely love to have a player like that on this team."
As the Phillies stare down Harper and Machado, waiting for one to budge, hopeful that spring training's arrival expedites some kind of a deal after 3½ months of soul-sucking inactivity, they do so from a good position: happy about their winter otherwise but ready as ever to make themselves indisputably the most interesting team in baseball.