The Phillies acquired Tommy Joseph from the Giants for Hunter Pence last season. (AP)
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The plan made perfect sense.
Top catching prospect Tommy Joseph was going to spend the 2013 season catching for Triple A Lehigh Valley and then if everything went well, the catcher would get a September call-up to the big leagues for a little dress rehearsal.
With Carlos Ruiz entering the last year of his contract with the Phillies, the veteran catcher could help tutor his successor. With 49 homers in his first three pro seasons, Joseph was clearly on the fast track to the big leagues.
But sometimes even the best-laid plans hit a snag.
Joseph had a concussion on May 4 when he took a foul ball off his mask and missed the next month of the season. He was activated and went to Single A Clearwater to get back into shape but lasted just five games before post-concussion symptoms put him back on the shelf.
“Right off the bat people were saying I could go down to Florida, I’ll be there a couple of weeks to get my feet under me and work my way back up,” Joseph said. “There were a lot of setbacks and it ended up taking a lot longer than people wanted it to.”
But it was Joseph’s third concussion of his pro career, and at age 22 with just four seasons under his belt, the catcher and the Phillies might need to reevaluate his future position. When he returned to Double A Reading in mid-July, Joseph was hopeful that the worst was behind him and was able to play with no limitations. However, that return lasted just a handful of games before he had another setback along with a shin injury.
Finally, the Phillies decided the best plan for Joseph would be to give him the rest of the year off.
Joseph said he was hoping to play winter ball this year, but that depends on his recovery.
In the interim, the Phillies will have to rethink their plans at catcher in 2014 and beyond. Ruiz has struggled in a season that began with him serving a 25-game suspension for a non-compliant use of the prescription drug, Adderall. Ruiz also had a nagging hamstring injury that forced him onto the disabled list. Meanwhile, veteran Erik Kratz also had injury issues this season and doesn’t figure to be the team’s everyday catcher.
That leaves Triple A catcher Cameron Rupp and Double A receiver Sebastian Valle as the viable in-house options. Rupp and Valle split time at Reading at the start of the season, which led to struggles for both catchers. According to Reading manager Dusty Wathan, Rupp and Valle needed as much playing time as possible.
“I think it’s difficult when you have two guys catching -- it’s difficult to have two leaders at one position,” Wathan said.
Valle has struggled at the plate for Reading this year, batting just .210 with a .242 on-base percentage and 12 homers in 76 games. Last year, Valle hit .261 for Reading with 13 homers and a .280 on-base percentage in 83 games.
As a result of Valle’s regression, Rupp has leapfrogged to Triple A and could get a look in the big leagues next month. However, even Rupp’s numbers have been rather pedestrian. In 79 games between the two levels, Rupp is batting .251 with a .313 on-base percentage and 12 homers. Plus, at 24, Rupp is the oldest of the three minor-league catchers. Rupp spent three years at the University of Texas before going in the third round of the 2010 draft.
So if Ruiz doesn’t return on a one- or two-year deal, the Phillies might have to look at the free-agent market for a catcher. There, the selection will be significant with the likes of Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski and John Buck expected to test the waters. But those veteran catchers likely will carry a hefty price tag with them.