Ruben Amaro believes Carlos Ruiz is worth risk

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Ruben Amaro believes Carlos Ruiz is worth risk

Ruben Amaro Jr. made it pretty clear that he would have preferred something shorter than a three-year contract for catcher Carlos Ruiz. Amaro acknowledged that there were some battles in a “difficult” negotiation with Ruiz’s agent, Marc Kligman.

“But at the end of the day,” Amaro said, “the reality was this was the person we wanted to handle our pitching staff, so we moved forward.”

Amaro spoke these words during a hurried news conference to officially announce Ruiz’s new three-year, $26 million contract on Thursday night (see story). The news conference was hurried because Ruiz, a fan favorite since taking over the Phillies’ starting catching chores in 2007, had to hustle off for a Make A Wish visit with a young fan in South Jersey.

Ruiz was all smiles as he headed out the door.

“I’m happy,” he said. “Real happy. My goal when I got to the big leagues was finish my career here.”

Ruiz now has that chance. He turns 35 in January and the deal includes a club option for a fourth year.

Ruiz has missed time with back, hamstring, foot and oblique injuries in recent seasons. His health history and age has left many critics wondering how Amaro could justify guaranteeing three years on the contract. But with teams such as Boston and Colorado dangling two-year deals in front of Ruiz early in the free-agent season, Amaro felt he had to go to a third year to get his man.

The wisdom of that will play out in coming seasons.

“Clearly this is a commitment that will be scrutinized,” Amaro acknowledged.

“But when you start talking about this (catching) position and the dearth of quality at this position … I know that Chooch knows what it takes to be a championship-caliber player, to bring a championship to this city. We know that he’s caught the last pitch of the season and how important that is.

“And, really, with the marketplace with the way it was and with the ability he’s going to bring to the table -- he keeps himself in very good shape, he’s dedicated to the sport and his craft and he’s developed into one of the leaders of our club -- all those factors are part of the decision we made.

“Is it a risk to put three years into a catcher at this stage of his career? It can be, yes. But I think every signing is a risk, and we hope that he remains productive throughout the three years and perhaps more.”

Ruiz is confident he can do that.

“I know everybody says, ‘Third year,’" he said. “I feel great. I feel healthy and I’m strong.”

Ruiz had a poor first half in 2013. It started when he missed the first 25 games while serving a suspension for testing positive for using Adderall, an ADHD drug, without Major League approval in 2012. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recently cited an official from a team that had courted Ruiz as saying that the catcher has since taken the necessary medical steps and been cleared by MLB to take the prescription drug. Asked about the report at Thursday night’s news conference, Kligman said, “That’s not something I think is appropriate to address at this time.”

Ruiz rebounded in the second half of 2013 and hit .313 with five homers, 28 RBIs and an .860 OPS in his first 43 games after the all-star break before tailing off over the final days of the season as he battled a bruised left hand.

Ruiz had a career year in 2012 when he hit .325 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs in 114 games.

One of the Phillies’ stated goals in recent offseasons has been to get younger. That hasn’t happened this offseason. Amaro’s first two signings this offseason are high-mileage players. A week before bringing back Ruiz, Amaro signed 36-year-old rightfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million deal.

The Phillies have been forced to take age and health risks on the free-agent market because they either haven’t produced enough in-house talent to fill holes, or are not comfortable with that in-house talent. The team had long been looking for a right-handed hitting rightfielder and had Darin Ruf in-house, but Amaro basically ruled him out of consideration at the end of the 2013 season. That led to the targeting and signing of Byrd.

In fairness to the Phillies, they added three young players to the lineup last season in Domonic Brown, Ben Revere and Cody Asche. But five of their projected opening day starters -- Ruiz, Byrd, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins -- will be 34 or older.

“Yes, they’re older,” Amaro said. “But they’re also very good when they’re playing.”

Amaro plans a few more additions to the pitching staff and possibly the outfield.

"We may look to try to improve our lineup somehow or tweak our lineup somehow," he said.

Still, he believes the aging core of the team can succeed.

“I think we can win,” he said. “Really it’s a matter of getting guys on the field. If they’re on the field, they’ll produce. Unless something drastic happens over the next few months, I fully expect them to be on the field and performing.

“I believe in our players. There’s no question they’re getting older, but if they’re on the field, they’ll produce.”

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.

Soler said Fernandez's ability was obvious, right from the start.

"Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something," Soler said through a translator. "He had a talent. It was very impressive."

Fernandez's death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami's home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field's iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez's No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.

But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball's growing Cuban community.

"He was one of those guys that everybody loved," St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it's a big, big loss. It's one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins' organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family."

There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner's office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors' top pitchers.

"How he was on the mound was a reflection of him," Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you'd know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso said Fernandez's death was "a big-time shock." Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez's jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.

"We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship," Pena said. "For us, it's devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It's something that obviously nobody expects."

Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.

"He was a great humanitarian," Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. "He gave a lot to the community and I think that's why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn't as fortunate as he was."

The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.

"He would come by my house. I would go by his," Chapman said. "We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me."

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

NEW YORK — The clubhouse mood following the Phillies17-0 loss to the Mets Sunday was somber, in part because of the disastrous game that had just wrapped up, but also because of the tragic news of Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez’s death in a boating accident early Sunday morning.

“It was rough. People are devastated. I didn’t even know him and I was crushed,” Phillies starter Jake Thompson said. “I can only imagine how that clubhouse feels. That’s something that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, to deal with something of that magnitude.”

Both teams paused for a moment of silence before Sunday’s game and the Mets taped a jersey bearing Fernandez’s name and number onto their dugout wall.

“This morning, that was quite a surprise,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the atmosphere of the day. “I don’t think it affected the players once the game started. It was such bad news this morning that everybody was kind of melancholy.”

Fernandez had built a strong track record against the Phillies in his young career, amassing a 2.88 ERA in six starts.

“It’s kind of cliché to say but you look at the start of his career and he could have been a Hall of Famer,” Thompson said.

Asked how he would remember facing Fernandez, Mackanin was succinct.

“He was a helluva pitcher,” he said.

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