Carlos Ruiz is in his eighth year with the Phillies, but he is set to become a free agent at the end of the season. (USA Today Images)
Phillies' catching prospects
On the surface, 2013 looks to have been a bad year for Phillies’ catching prospects.
Tommy Joseph, the most advanced of the group, lost a year of development after suffering his third concussion since becoming a pro in 2010.
So much for him pushing for a big-league roster spot in 2014.
Sebastian Valle had a poor season as his slide from prospect status continued.
But a deeper look at the Phils’ minor-league catching situation shows this wasn’t such a bad season after all, at least from a long-range standpoint (see full story).
Just over two weeks ago, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. sized up his team and said, “We’ve got catching issues. We need to figure out what we’re going to do behind the plate. That’s crucial.”
Catching wasn’t the only area that Amaro referred to as he gazed forward at his offseason to-do list. He also mentioned the bullpen.
And the bullpen.
And the bullpen.
Several Phillies eras have ended recently and more will in the coming weeks. The Phils’ run of five straight NL East titles ended last season, and Charlie Manuel’s successful stewardship ended last month. The Phils are headed toward their first losing season since 2002, so the final pitch of the 2013 season will mark the end of another era.
And with that final pitch, one has to wonder if yet another era will end.
Popular catcher Carlos Ruiz, who mirrored the Phillies’ ascension to the top of the baseball world with his rise from a nondescript $8,000 signing on a Panama sandlot to Major League All-Star, will be a free agent at season’s end.
The man who had the final putout in the Phillies’ 2008 World Series win and so many more in the club’s run of division titles could catch his final game with the team on Sept 29. Ruiz is hoping that won’t be the case. He hopes that the Phillies will sign him to a contract extension over the winter, but it’s not clear whether they will. Ruiz will be 35 in January and until recently had not played well in 2013. Hence, Amaro’s saying, “We’ve got catching issues.”
In the two-plus weeks that have passed since Amaro made that comment, Ruiz has picked up his play. He has had his best stretch of the season -- at the plate and behind it. Over his last 16 games, he is hitting .379 (22 for 78) with six doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs. He is swinging more confidently and aggressively and hitting balls harder. He has risen from eighth in the batting order to fourth. Ruiz hit in the middle of the order frequently in 2012, a career year in which he hit .325 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs.
Ruiz’s 2012 season, of course, comes with some fine print. He tested positive for a banned stimulant and ended up serving a 25-game suspension at the start of this season. Once he returned, he never got untracked and missed a month with a hamstring injury.
When Ruiz was able to get in the lineup, he tried to make up for lost time in a hurry. He pressed.
“I felt like I wanted to do everything in one at-bat, and that’s impossible,” he said.
Few know Ruiz better than pitching coach Rich Dubee. He could see Ruiz pressing at the plate and behind it.
“When he first got back, he really wasn’t the same guy,” Dubee said. “He was trying to catch a young staff at the big-league level that was a rush for many of these kids. He was trying to do stuff with them that you can only do with a more mature pitcher, but it was understandable because he was trying to help them get through games and get them through innings.
“The last month or so he’s back to being more the Carlos Ruiz we’ve seen in the past. He’s much more aware of the game going on. I think the suspension and missing time put a weight on him.”
Ruiz admits he’s more comfortable now. He is at peace. He is letting his play speak for itself. He will be happy if it leads to a contract extension. He will play somewhere else if it doesn’t.
“I want to finish strong and leave it up to Ruben,” Ruiz said.
Amaro has noticed Ruiz’s improved play in recent games.
“He’s picked it up,” Amaro said. “He’s a little more relaxed. He was thinking catch-up all at once, but now he’s relaxed and playing well again.”
Still, what to do at the catching position next season remains a riddle. Brian McCann is the prize of the free-agent market, but he will be expensive and hits left-handed. The Phillies desperately need a productive right-handed bat. A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are also free agents, but they also hit left-handed. Dioner Navarro is having a nice season with the Cubs and he will be a free agent. Kurt Suzuki could be a free agent if Oakland doesn’t pick up his option.
While there are other possibilities out there, re-signing Ruiz could make sense, especially if he continues to impress in September. For one thing, the Phillies could end up with a bargain. Ruiz is making $5 million this season, but his struggles could keep his price tag down and that could free up money to be used in other areas.
Dubee believes Ruiz has good years left, but he was frank in saying that Ruiz would be most productive being limited to about 100 games.
“I don’t know that he’s a 120-game guy anymore,” Dubee said. “He’s going to be 35. I still think he can catch 90, maybe 100, and be a very effective player for you. You need a guy that probably can catch another 50 games for you.”
That guy could be Erik Kratz or Cameron Rupp or someone off the free-agent market like a Navarro.
The Phils may be looking for only a short-term answer, a season or two, at catcher. While top catching prospect Tommy Joseph lost a year of development with a concussion issue this season, the Phils have several other catching prospects on the way, including Andrew Knapp, this year’s second-round pick. Scouts think he could be a fast riser.
Amaro was right when he said the Phillies have catching issues. But if Carlos Ruiz continues his recent strong play, he could end up being part of the solution.