Phillies Stay or Go: Darin Ruf

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Phillies Stay or Go: Darin Ruf

The Phillies' first losing season since 2002 is sure to bring wholesale changes in the offseason. But who should stay and who should go? We’ve asked that very question for the last two weeks and will finish up our look at the roster in the coming days.

Thursday, we examined Cliff Lee (see story) and today we take a look at a homegrown power bat who filled in well in 2013:

Darin Ruf
Position: Corner outfield/first base
Status: Made a prorated portion of the major-league minimum in 2013; under team control through at least 2018

Season as a whole
Ruf had a very consistent second half filling in for Ryan Howard at first base and for the released Delmon Young in right field.

Ruf reached base at least once in 58 of 70 starts, and reached at least twice in 34 games. He hit 14 home runs in 293 plate appearances, which put him on a 32-homer pace over a full season.

His plate discipline was nearly as impressive. Ruf had 33 walks and was hit by seven pitches, giving him an on-base percentage 101 points higher than his batting average. The Phillie with the next largest gap between OBP and batting average was Chase Utley, at 64 points.

There were flaws in Ruf’s game, though. He struck out way too much -- 91 times in all. Extrapolate that over a full season and you have 202 strikeouts.

His outfield defense was shaky. Ruf, who had never played the outfield professionally prior to the winter of 2012, impressed at first because he wasn’t a train wreck like many expected. But as the season wore on his deficiencies in route running and throwing became apparent.

According to Fangraphs, he cost the Phillies 8.8 runs on defense. Is that number completely accurate? Probably not, because defensive metrics are all flawed. But it does match up enough with what our eyes saw to help determine that Ruf was truly a below-average corner outfielder.

Again, not his fault. He’s a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who had almost no experience chasing after fly balls.

Stay or go
The decision on Ruf will be one of the most interesting of the Phillies’ offseason. He certainly proved in 2013 that he can hit major-league pitching. But if the Phillies head into 2014 with a corner outfield of Domonic Brown and Ruf they’ll again struggle with outfield defense, which has been a problem the Phils have talked about correcting (but haven’t) for two straight seasons.

Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted at the end of September that Ruf isn’t an everyday rightfielder, and that despite his strong offensive half he’ll have to battle for a job next spring. It’s difficult to pinpoint what that job may be. Is Ruf a platoon first baseman with Howard? Is he a bench bat? Is he a super-sub who might see 3-4 days per week in the starting lineup between first base and the corner outfield?

Or is he trade bait? At 27, Ruf isn’t the kind of young centerpiece teams look for in deals. But that might not matter as much as most think. He’s still incredibly cheap and under team control for five-plus years. He’s just entering his prime. We’re talking about a player with 30-home run potential who will make about $500,000 next season. The Phillies could make use of that if they didn’t have so much money committed at first base or if they didn’t have so many defensive problems in the outfield.

Five years ago Ruf would have been a great fit for the Phils. He could have played left field with Shane Victorino in center and Jayson Werth in right. He has many of the same skills as Pat Burrell, who was also a weak defender. But it’s a new day. And unfortunately, the young, improving, inexpensive guy may be the odd man out.

Considering right field is essentially the only everyday position the Phillies can upgrade this offseason, it’s safe to assume Ruf will either be a super-sub for the Phils or a player who gets traded as part of a package for a star. (Giancarlo Stanton or Jose Bautista, anyone?)

It’s not because Ruf isn’t or can’t be productive. It’s because the fit just isn’t there. That’s more of an indictment of how the Phillies have spent their money and filled out their roster than of Ruf’s play.

What they're saying ...
“In right field, we don’t know what we’ve got. That’s a hole for us. Ruf is not a rightfielder. I think he can fill in for us. I think he can fill in in certain areas, but I can’t sit here and tell you that he’s an everyday player for us. He’s going to have to fight for a job in some way, shape or form.

“Can he add some depth to our bench, to our club overall? Can he play a little left, can he play a little right, can he play a little first and give [Ryan] Howard a blow? He can become valuable in that regard. But I don’t know he’s an everyday player yet. It’s hard to say that he’s an everyday player in the outfield. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice, because we just need to be better in the outfield defensively. ... We have the type of pitching staff that is going to rely on us catching the baseball.”

--Ruben Amaro, September 2013

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come, or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 134th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors, and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26, and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see the Phils paying a player $200 million, $300 million, $400 million?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35, and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years, to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate, and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017, “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him.

And the looming shadow of the "man" in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).