Is Ruiz the answer to Phillies' catching issues?

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Is Ruiz the answer to Phillies' catching issues?

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.

Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

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Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Yordano Ventura quit school as a teenager so he could begin working a construction job to help his family make ends meet, laboring day after day in the hot sun of the Dominican Republic.

It was a chance tryout with the Kansas City Royals that changed the trajectory of his life.

Yordano wowed scouts with an electrifying fastball, the best they had seen in years, and a confident demeanor that bordered on brash and arrogant. And both of those traits served him well as he rocketed to the major leagues, helped the Royals win a long-awaited World Series championship in 2015, and became one of the most popular players in a city that embraced baseball one again.

Ventura, whose nickname "Ace" fit so perfectly, died Sunday in a car crash on a stretch of highway near the town of San Adrian in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.

"Our team and our organization is hurting deeply," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's certainly something that puts everything into strong perspective, and challenges us all to never grow tired or weary or cease to do what is right, and loving others. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.

"We loved Yordano," Moore said. "We loved his heart, we loved who he was as a teammate, a friend. He was somebody that challenged us all and made us better and I'm going to miss him."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a stretch of highway 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the nation's capital. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

He's the second young star pitcher to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was 24 when he was killed along with two other men in a boating accident near Miami Beach in late September.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"I was traveling to the airport this morning and I got a phone call wanting to know if I'd heard about Yordano, and I thought they meant Marte," Moore said. "My first thought was, `Were they together?'

"Then shortly afterwards, I got a call from Major League Baseball confirming this tragedy."

The Dominican Republic has the second-highest traffic-related death rate in the world -- officials there believe alcohol, speed and a blatant disregard for traffic laws is to blame. Oscar Taveras, Jose Oliva, Rufino Linares and Jose Uribe are among players who have died in crashes in the country.

It wasn't known whether Ventura had been drinking or speeding at the time of his accident.

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, a fellow Dominican whom Ventura called his hero, posted pictures of Ventura and Marte on Twitter and said, "Guys, the only way we can pay tribute to you, is by reflecting on the adjustments we all have to make in this game called life."

Moore speaks frequently with Latin American players about dangers of returning home, including driving on the perilous roads.

"I'm more intentional about it to the point where it probably goes in one ear and out the other," Moore said, "but we're constantly discussing these things."

The Royals lowered flags at Kauffman Stadium to half-staff Sunday, and displayed Ventura's photograph on the large, crown-shaped scoreboard in centerfield of the empty ballpark. Fans were leaving flowers, hats and other mementos within hours of learning of his death.

Royals teammates learned the news in a text chain and took to Twitter to share their sorrow.

"I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say," first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."

Ventura will be buried Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. Moore, manager Ned Yost and other members of the Royals are planning to attend.

Before his start in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, Ventura paid tribute to Taveras, his close friend and countryman who had been killed days earlier in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Ventura wrote "RIP O.T (hash)18" on his hat and also wrote messages on his glove, cleats and the mound before shutting out San Francisco for seven innings in a win.

"If he was still here, I would for sure be talking to him, and Oscar would be very happy for me," Ventura said afterward. "Oscar was a very humble guy and very likable, and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Ventura signed a $23 million, five-year deal with the Royals shortly before he started on opening day in 2015. He then helped them bounce back from their loss to the Giants in Game 7 by returning to the World Series and beating the New York Mets in five games for their first crown since 1985.

The right-hander went 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA last season, and his fiery demeanor was never more evident than when he hit Orioles star Manny Machado with a fastball to trigger a brawl. Ventura was suspended nine games for the pitch, though it was cut to eight on appeal.

In a surreal coincidence, the 33-year-old Marte played his final game in the big leagues for Arizona on Aug. 6, 2014. Ventura started that game for Kansas City.

"Today is a very sad day for our entire game and particularly for the many loyal fans in the Dominican Republic, the home of both Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

Said players' union head Tony Clark: "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Moore said he spoke to Miami general manager Mike Hill early Sunday, in part because Moore admired the grace and heart in which the Marlins organization dealt with Fernandez's death.

It wasn't certain whether Fernandez was driving the boat when it crashed on Sept. 25. He had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.147, above Florida's legal limit of 0.08, according to autopsy reports released by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

"That was one of the first things that came to mind when I began to figure out how we were going to process this," Moore said. "Mike was able to provide some insight. Just give me some comfort, really."

Ventura wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura was a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when he heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential to his rapid rise. He made his debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as Hosmer and Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League.

He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades. Then he helped to lead them back to the Fall Classic in 2015, this time completing the job on a crisp night in New York.

"He always had a zest for life, an innocence about the game, a freshness, a fearlessness," Moore said, his voice cracking. "He was a very compassionate human being, loved to compete, no doubt challenged us, but that made us better. Nobody could ever doubt how much he cared about his teammates, how much he cared about the fans, and how much he loved to compete and to pitch."

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.