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J.T. Realmuto is nearing a return from knee surgery. Who should the Phillies keep as backup catcher?

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The band is nearly fully back together, and the final member could still return before Monday's MLB All-Star break. J.T. Realmuto is nearing a return from meniscectomy surgery on his right knee, but there remains a chance the Phillies' catcher could be back before.

Philadelphia routed the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday night in the series opener of a highly anticipated matchup between the National League's top two teams. The Phils welcome the Oakland Athletics this weekend for their final series before the break.

Realmuto can be reinstated from the 10-day injured list any time — he was placed on the IL on June 10. But based on how the Phillies have operated in the past, it's a safe bet Realmuto will return after the All-Star break even if he could play before.

An interesting debate has risen though in Realmuto's absence. When Realmuto returns, should the Phillies stick with chief vibes officer Garrett Stubbs or Rafael Marchán, who was once the team's fifth-best prospect as recently as 2021?

Who should be the Phillies' backup catcher?

When Realmuto went on the IL, he was coming off a torrid stretch in May where he set a franchise record for the longest hitting streak by a Phillies catcher in baseball's modern era — 17 games. He had started 78% of the Phillies' first 65 games.

Realmuto may no longer be "The Best Catcher in Baseball," but he remains one of them and one of the most reliable backstops in the sport. Catcher is often considered the hardest position in the sport, and serving as his backup may be even tougher.

Since becoming a Phillie in 2019, Realmuto has started 79% of the team's games before going on the IL.

If the Phillies plan to use Realmuto as usual, his backup won't play much.

As they did when Trea Turner strained his hamstring and then Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber went down with injuries, the Phils have survived. Edmundo Sosa filled in for Turner, and Turner went on a power binge after Harper and Schwarber were injured. Philadelphia went 5-4 without Harper, Schwarber and Realmuto. The Phils are 14-12 since Realmuto went on the IL on June 10.

Stubbs and Marchán have filled in admirably, combining to post a .773 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). But when Realmuto is reinstated, one of them has to go. Both have one minor-league option left.

Why Garrett Stubbs likely isn't going anywhere

Stubbs can be described as a vibes guy. He's established himself as a key part of the clubhouse — and that matters — but he's a light-hitting catcher, which isn't an outlier for the position.

Before Realmuto's injury, Stubbs hit .173/.271/.291 (.464 OPS) with one extra-base hit in 18 games and 14 starts. Stubbs, however, has been better with more consistent playing time.

In 13 starts since June 10, Stubbs is hitting .244/.277/.333 (.610 OPS) with one home run and a double. He's gotten a hit in 10 of his 13 starts, and the Phils are 7-6 during this span.

It's important to note that Realmuto's backup plays once a week, sometimes even less than that. Hitting a baseball is hard enough, and getting four at-bats every seven or 10 days isn't great for maintaining a rhythm.

So when you factor in the clubhouse, playing time and the stuff people don't see, it's easy to see the Phillies sticking with Stubbs.

Why it makes sense to send Rafael Marchán to Triple A

It's also easy to see why choosing Marchán over Stubbs is intriguing. Marchán, 25, offers a switch-hitting catcher with more pop. He's a better hitter than Stubbs and can help close the offensive gap from Realmuto and his backup.

In 15 games this season, Marchán is hitting .313/.353/.583 (.936 OPS) with three homers and four doubles — he has a .956 OPS in 13 starts. He went 3 for 3 with two doubles and an RBI in the Phillies' 10-1 win Tuesday over the Dodgers.

Marchán only played 13 games before his call-up because of a spring training back injury but had a .777 OPS in the minors. He's battled injuries in his career, but when he's played, he's shown pop at the plate. In 55 games in 2023, Marchán had a .839 OPS.

Defensively, Marchán has an edge over Stubbs too — he grades out better by Statcast in terms of catcher RV, framing and stealing.

Would Marchán maintain his offensive production in a significantly reduced role? Maybe.

But playing time is a factor here too.

If nothing changes with Realmuto's usage, it makes more sense for Marchán to get consistent at-bats at Triple A Lehigh Valley than playing once every seven or 10 days or the day game after a night game.

Marchán may be better than Stubbs, but with each having an option left, it's a question better answered next spring.

Stubbs has worked as the backup catcher and the behind-the-scene factors matter.

When Realmuto returns, the Phillies should use Marchán's final option, stick with Stubbs and reopen this debate in the spring.

Still, a debate about the backup catcher says a lot about the Phillies' standing. There could, and are, worse places to be.

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