The Chooch Cometh: Ten Days Out, What Can Carlos Ruiz's Return Mean to Phillies?

The Chooch Cometh: Ten Days Out, What Can Carlos Ruiz's Return Mean to Phillies?

Guest post by Matt Hammond

Erik Kratz and Humberto Quintero have combined to hit .167/.164/.278 so far this season, with each of those being in the bottom four in baseball among catchers, and the OBP being dead-last.

And so, Carlos Ruiz becomes the Phillies early-season white knight, scheduled to ride in 10 games and 10 days from now, when his 25-game suspension ends – even though he’s presumed to be less than he was last season.

There’s good reason for the sentiment, whether he's who he was last year or before.

While Ruiz enjoyed a much-improved power stroke last season, in the rest of his game, he was pretty much the same player, which is to say a good one.

The uptick in his .325 average (.042) is almost perfectly accounted for by a bump in his batting average on balls in play (.031), often a measure of luck.

For the Phillies, Ruiz's .281 previous three-year average would be third-best among qualifying hitters on the team this season, behind Michael Young (.346) and Chase Utley (.283).

That lends itself to the lineup shuffle they need, letting Jimmy Rollins reassume lead-off duties, Young to jump to No. 2 and Ruiz to slide in behind Ryan Howard.

There’s more to blame for the Phillies 20th in baseball 50 runs scored so far, but Ben Revere’s .194/.242/.194 line is certainly among them. And while Revere may improve without leadoff-man pressure, even if he didn’t, his current slash line would make for just under the big-league
average for eight-hole hitters.

With Young, if his .884 OPS holds up, great. If not, his average, on-base percentage and overall instincts – who he really is, anyway – make him a perfect fit in the two-hole, considered along with the three-hole where your best hitter belongs.

They'll likely miss some power. Ruiz's 2012 home run rate was about that of Matt Weiters, whose 23 bombs were second among catchers, and his .935 OPS was just below Buster Posey’s best in the bigs. The Phillies rank 19th in baseball in home runs (13) and extra-base hits (40) through 15 games.

Ruiz also caught a career-high 34.0 percent of base stealers last year.

But even then, there’s upside. Or at the very least, status quo from Kratz.

The take in Ruiz’s 2012 was plate patience, seen in his career-low walk rate (6.9%) and near-career-high strikeout rate (11.9%), both notably worse than in 2011.

Maybe this year he reverts back to old tendencies and walks, and helps boost the team’s lowly .291 OBP and consequent scoring slumps. And if Ruiz rekindles his .847 OPS from 2010, he’d fall in line with the
five-hole hitting Howard cozied up to from 2007-2009, when the Phillies team five-hole OPS ranked 2nd in the NL each year, and when Howard was in the last of his home run-hitting prime.

Worst-case scenario: Ruiz's three-year prior OPS reemerges, and the Phillies five-hole hitting is precisely that of the Cardinals’ last year (10th in MLB), and 11th in the bigs so far.

Best-case scenario: Delmon Young rakes when he comes back from arthroscopic ankle surgery in early-to-mid May, lining up Ruiz to be one of the strongest seven-hole hitters in baseball.

As for his ability to nab base-stealers: Ruiz’s pre-2012 three-year caught stealing rate (25.9%) isn’t that far off from Kratz’s this year (28.6%) and would rank about average in baseball in 2013.

Hopefully we’re past the whole, “Erik Kratz Can’t Call A Game!” thing, especially with the rotation having already come around of late. (And the numbers showing that, at times, the staff had a better ERA with Kratz than Ruiz last year.)

Still, there’s something to be said for comfort, and Ruiz is just that for the Phillies $64.5 million top three starters – however intangible that may be.

As for what can be measured: don’t assume Ruiz can’t get or doesn’t ask for an exemption to use amphetamines again, what may or may not have fueled his surge.

You'd understand why he may be denied; it would make for a bad look from the league office to give a repeat drug policy offender the green light afterward. But such exemptions are apparently kinda easy to come by.

Ruiz has already been asked about such things, and he’s kept mum. We’ll see April 28.

What we already know: we'll see a valuable player and fan favorite rejoin a team that needs him.

Matt Hammond is the Phillies Insider and Update Anchor for 97.3 ESPN in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter here.

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

The benching of Maikel Franco lasted for a second day Wednesday.

When will it end?

"It's a day-to-day thing," Pete Mackanin said. "No specific plan."

Franco is hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Mackanin first benched his third baseman/cleanup hitter on Tuesday. At the time, the manager said he was trying to take some heat off the slumping Franco and let him clear his mind, but the overriding reason for the benching is simple: Mackanin is looking for Franco to make the fundamental adjustments in his swing that will lead to more production.

"At this level you've got to produce," Mackanin said Tuesday. "You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship.

"As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. … If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Franco on Wednesday said he understands the benching. He is disappointed in his production.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," he said. "I know I can produce better and help the team more. Nobody wants to be in this situation, hitting .220. The only thing to do is try to get better.

"I think any good hitter hitting .220 is going to be disappointed. I will not stop working and doing what I have to to get better."

Typically, a manager, especially one such as Mackanin, whose strength is communication, would speak to a player and lay out the reasons for an extended benching.

But Mackanin has chosen to let the lineup card do the talking on this one. He'd like to speak with Franco about the situation, but wants the player to come to him.

It doesn't sound like that's going to happen.

"They understand and I understand, you know?" Franco said. "I'm not the guy to go into the manager's office and say, 'Why am I not in the lineup?' I want to play. He knows what he's doing and I know what I'm capable of doing. Every single day when I come in, I'm 100 percent mentally ready to be in the lineup and I'm ready to play. If I'm not in the lineup, I have to get relaxed and just try to do everything I can to make an adjustment so when I'm in the lineup, I'll do my job."

Andres Blanco played third base in place of Franco on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Franco doesn't improve when he gets back in the lineup — whenever that may be — there could soon be another player in the mix at third base.

Howie Kendrick began a minor-league rehab assignment at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. He played left field in that game. Mackanin said the rehab stint would last four games and that Kendrick would also play first and third base.

Do the math on that one.

Franco can be optioned to the minors so that could also be a possibility if his problems persist.

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

PITTSBURGH -- Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that's not exactly the case.

"I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times," Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

"I think, if you believe you're beaten, you're done already," Anderson said. "If you believe that you can win, there's always a chance."

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league's marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren't supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring's Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they've survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan's impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year's East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents' Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month (see full story).

Predators: Goalie Rinne on smothering run
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne's face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

"As a player, I feel like I've had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity," Rinne said. "So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have."

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he's probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne's 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

"What he does every night, you can't put into words," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said (see full story).

Blues: Sydor returns to Blues as assistant
ST. LOUIS -- Darryl Sydor has returned to the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach under mentor Mike Yeo.

Sydor agreed to a three-year deal Wednesday.

The 45-year-old Sydor finished his 18-year NHL playing career with the Blues in 2009-10, then broke into coaching as Yeo's assistant the next season with the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros. Sydor went with Yeo to Minnesota and spent five years with the Wild before working as an assistant last season with the Blues' then-Chicago affiliate in the AHL.

Sydor was a defenseman for Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, winning Stanley Cup titles with Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Coyotes: Cunningham hired as pro scout
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Craig Cunningham as a pro scout and say he will assist with player development.

General manager John Chayka announced the two-year contract Wednesday that allows Cunningham to remain in hockey.

Cunningham collapsed on the ice with a cardiac disturbance prior to a game Nov. 19 while playing for the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners and required emergency life-saving care. He had part of his left leg amputated and saw his playing career end.

But the 26-year-old who was captain of the Roadrunners last season says he's excited to start the next chapter of his hockey career in the Coyotes' front office. Chayka called Cunningham a "smart, hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game" that he believes will translate to his new job.