A couple months ago it looked like the Phils 2014 starting catcher would be TBD – To Be Determined. Carlos Ruiz was quickly becoming an after thought. He started the season suspended the first 25 games for taking Adderral without a prescription last year. Shortly after his return Ruiz struggled offensively, especially in the power department. He then went on the DL for a pulled hamstring. When he finally started playing every day he continued looking weak and ineffective at the plate. There were whispers that without Adderral, the 34 year-old catcher had lost his bat speed and wasn’t capable of being a starting catcher anymore. Ruiz is a free agent at the end of the season and it was largely assumed the Phils would move on.
The original plan was to have Tommy Joseph catch this year for the IronPigs, as he was being groomed to take Ruiz’s job in 2014. Joseph, acquired in the Hunter Pence trade to the Giants last year was considered the center piece of the deal for the Phils. He was the Giants 2nd rated prospect behind OF Gary Brown (who the Giants refused to part with. BTW, whatever happened to Brown?). As often times happens with the best laid plans, these went awry when Joseph got off to a slow start and then suffered the 3rd concussion of his young career. In short, this was a wasted season in the development of Tommy Joseph who has a total of 123 AB’s ranging everywhere in the system from rookie league ball up to AAA.
Other Phillie minor league catchers didn’t look like they’d be ready for a full time gig behind home plate either. Sebastian Valle continued his offensive struggles at AA this year, particularly his low BA (.203), high strikeout ratio (24.86%) and a ridiculous SO/BB ratio (4.63 SO/BB). Cameron Rupp got the majority of playing time catching at AAA but still looks no where near ready to be a full time starting catcher at the major league level. Though Rupp had a respectable BA of .269 at Lehigh Valley, his strikeout ratio and SO/BB ratio are higher than Valle’s. While all these names were being bandied about, the blogosphere and radio talk shows chimed in and started a push for the Phils to pursue free agent to be, Brian McCann.
Is McCann a viable option? Considering he’d be the 6th LHH in the every day lineup and McCann turns 30 before next season, he’s far from a good candidate for the Phils. Throw in the number of games McCann’s already started behind the plate since 2006, the money he’ll command as the best catcher in a very weak FA class, the amount of years he’ll ask for and how many years McCann has left behind the plate, make him less than an ideal fit. He’s better off signing with an AL team who can utilize his bat as a DH down the road, trying to somehow justify the massive contract he’ll surely receive.
The chatter surrounding next year’s catcher increased as Ruiz was playing the worst baseball of his career in the first half of 2013. In his first 46 games this season, which takes us through the Phils first 103 games, Ruiz had a slash line of .253/.301/.280 with four doubles, zero HR’s and only nine RBI’s in 150 AB’s. In a word, he was terrible. With so little in the FA market and none of the young guys ready for a full-time role, where was Ruben Amaro Jr. going to find his 2014 catcher?
Then on July 30th, in his 47th game of the season, Ruiz launched a home run and drove in two runs. It was the start of the unforeseeable Carlos Ruiz comeback. Counting July 30th Ruiz has played in a total of 40 games (35 starts). His numbers over that stretch have been so good he lifted a huge weight of the shoulders of Amaro – at least temporarily, as it’s apparent he’s got enough of his game back to be a starting catcher at least one more season. His slash line for the past seven weeks is an impressive .314/.368/.507. He’s also chipped in 12 doubles, five HR’s and 27 RBI’s since finding his stroke. He’s provided a sorely needed power stick from the right side and has been batting in the cleanup hole some nights.
Aside from his more than adequate bat, Ruiz is a true leader on the field. There are few better defensive catchers in the game. The highly touted “Four Aces” of Halladay, Hamels, Lee and Oswalt of the 2011 Phillies have sung Ruiz’s praises as the best in the business at calling a game. That season the four aces combined to go 61-33 as the Phillies won a record 102 games in the regular season. Throw in rookie Vance Worley’s 11-3 season and the starting staff was 72-36 in 139 starts. Their 2.75 ERA and 1.094 WHIP as a starting staff is one of, if not the greatest starting five since baseball went to a 5-man rotation.
Many people would argue the title of greatest 5-man rotations belongs to the 1998 Atlanta Braves. Their starting five consisted of Glavine, Maddox, Smoltz, Neagle and Millwood. Tom Glavine won the Cy Young Award that year as Maddox finished 4th and Smoltz 5th in the balloting. That staff already has two Hall of Famers (Glavine & Maddox), and most baseball people agree that when his name goes on the ballot, Smoltz will be joining them. They combined to win seven Cy Young Awards, 853 games and 154 saves (Smoltz went to the bullpen for 3+ years. He was equally great as a reliever, averaging 48 saves a year for the three full seasons he was a closer). The starting five on the 1998 Braves staff enjoyed incredible health as they combined to start all 162 games. Though their record of 88-37 surpasses that of the Phils 2011 staff (72-36), the Braves had a higher ERA (2.97 – 2.75) and WHIP (1.160 – 1.094) than the Phils starting five. Both teams had the best record in the NL in their respective seasons, and both fell short of making it to the World Series.
But I digress…there’s something about baseball history and greatness that just gets me off, but back to Chooch. Ruiz took control on the field like a general marching his troops into battle. He doesn’t make needless trips to the mound, but when he does go, he’s not there to discuss dinner plans. He always has something pertinent to say about how to pitch to the next batter, the game situation or when necessary, to settle down even a great pitcher who’s showing a rare loss of focus. His contributions to one of the greatest 5-man rotations ever assembled in the history of baseball can’t be ignored, or even diminished. He’s that good behind the dish.
The challenging part to bringing Ruiz back next year is signing him. As we already discussed the free agent market for catchers is very weak this year. I’m certain the Phils want him back and I’m fairly confident that Ruiz will want to stay with the only team he’s ever played major league ball for. But being a free agent catcher in a very weak field is like having an American Express Platinum Card – it comes with rewards. I don’t think money will be the hold up in getting a deal done, but the length of the contract could be a different story.
When Ruiz was struggling you could safely assume he’d come back on a one-year deal. With his recent resurgence I doubt that is still the case. I heard on a sports talk radio show that Ruiz’s agent will be asking for a 3-year contract. One year would be optimal for the Phils, as they’ll most likely use Cameron Rupp in the all important backup slot. If they don’t think Rupp is ready to play 60 games of major league baseball they can always bring back Erik Kratz at a reasonable number.
Kratz is a mediocre defensive catcher whose offensive numbers have taken a big dip from his 2012 campaign, but he still has major league experience and can give the Phils the occasional long ball. The obvious and easy compromise would be to settle for two years. In the first year Chooch would remain the starter and in year two he would either split time or back up whichever of the young catchers makes the biggest strides heading into 2015. If some team steps up with a 3-year offer it’s going to make things uncomfortable for Amaro, to say the least. He already has too many old players on longer contracts than they should be.
At the end of the day I don’t think Amaro will have to go three years, but will probably have to go two years at a little more money than he’d like. With no obvious ready replacement, Ruiz has the leverage. If his agent is smart he’ll use it to maximize what is probably Ruiz’s last contract. Welcome back Chooch. Even though you’re the fourth of five infielders in their mid 30’s, the Phils need you to have any shot at contending next year.