Phillies at Catching Crossroads in 2013

Good catchers are hard to find, and when you do find them, you’ve got to keep them. It’s what the Minnesota Twins did with Joe Mauer, as I noted at ESPN Sweet Spot, and what the St. Louis Cardinals did with Yadier Molina; what the San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles will soon do with Buster Posey and Matt Wieters, respectively. It’s what the Phillies did with Carlos Ruiz three years ago.

Over those last three years, only two catchers — Molina and Posey — have been more valuable than Ruiz going by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement statistic. Ruiz, however, turns 34 in a month and is a free agent after the season. He could join a weak 2014 free agent catching class that includes only Brian McCann among notable names. The rest are older, less productive players.

With the R.A. Dickey trade making headlines, the inclusion of catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud — a former Phillies top prospect — makes one consider the future of Phillies catchers. Most notably, there is Tommy Joseph, who came into the Phillies’ system in the trade that sent Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. After slugging 22 home runs and posting a .787 OPS as a 19-year-old with Single-A San Jose,  Joseph followed that up with a less-impressive 11 homers and .715 OPS between Double-A Richmond (Giants) and Double-A Reading (Phillies). Joseph also spent 34 of the 108 games he started at first base or as a designated hitter, reinforcing the notion that he won’t be a catcher at the Major League level. It could still happen, but Joseph needs to take some strides defensively first. While he has a strong arm, he struggles at blocking pitches in the dirt.

Sebastian Valle, now 22, has been for a couple years considered the heir apparent to Ruiz. He made it all the way up to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last season after finishing 2011 with Single-A Clearwater, which is very impressive. He also recovered the power that went missing, hitting 17 in total last season compared to just five the year prior. Unfortunately, Valle’s plate discipline lacks, with a career 434-120 (3.6) strikeout-to-walk ratio. Comparatively, Ryan Howard‘s was 588-253 (2.3) during his Minor League career. Valle has the defensive tools necessary to thrive in the Majors, but his offense still needs some work. Plate discipline is not a skill easily learned, and Valle’s is bad enough that it could hamstring his ability to reach the Majors.

Finally, there’s Cameron Rupp. He continued to make improvements in 2012, finishing with career-high offensive numbers across the board. Most impressively, he cut down on strikeouts while walking more and adding more power. Depending on who you ask, Rupp is arguably a better defensive catcher than Valle, which is great news. The bad news? Rupp is 24 years old and hasn’t reached Double-A yet. Some may point out that this was precisely the case with Ruiz many years ago, but Ruiz is the exception rather than the rule. As we learned with Darin Ruf, having success in the Minors doesn’t mean a whole lot if you’re a couple years older than your competition, on average. An optimistic projection for Rupp involves him being a replacement-level regular in the Majors, providing most of his value with defense, game-calling, and intangibles rather than with his bat. In other words, the Phillies shouldn’t rely on Rupp being the catcher of the future.

With all three of their best catching prospects having murky-at-best futures, what then should they do with Carlos Ruiz? Should they offer a contract extension to a catcher who will be 35 in 2014 and has suffered from plantar fasciitis? Should they attempt to get value for Ruiz while he still has something left in the tank and is still considered one of baseball’s top catchers? Or should they let Ruiz walk after the season, going year-to-year with free agent veteran catchers and hoping one of the above three can smoothly transition into an everyday role at the Major League level?

It’s a difficult scenario, one that has gone largely unnoticed since it is a year away and the team has been focusing most of its attention on more urgent needs — outfield and third base, to be specific. Recently, Matt Gelb (@magelb) of the Philadelphia Inquirer called 2013 a “transition year” for the Phillies. As optimistic as we would like to be and believe the Phillies are ready to reclaim the NL East throne, it’s hard to dispute that label. Gelb writes:

Think about it: Chase Utley and Roy Halladay, bereft of injury concerns, are each in the final year of their contracts. Charlie Manuel is likely managing his last season. The organization’s best prospects (what’s left of them) are at least a year away from contributing.

A 2014 Phillies roster could not only be constructed without Ruiz, but Utley and Halladay too, as well as Michael Young. Trading Ruiz might be able to bring back a Major League player or two which would fill in some gaps, or close-to-MLB-ready prospects that could fill those gaps soon. Signing Ruiz to an extension may simply hogtie the Phillies to another aging, expensive, injury-prone veteran while the rest of the roster gets younger, cheaper, and healthier. The more you think about it, the more it seems evident that parting ways with Ruiz at some point between now and next off-season is inevitable and in the organization’s best interest.

The Phillies signed Ruiz out of Panama in 1998 for $8,000. In the time since, he has grown from an offensively-deficient, defensively-gifted backstop to one of the league’s toughest outs, best game-callers, and best pitch-blockers. You would be hard pressed to find a better value in the Phillies’ nearly 130-year history. When Ruiz’s time is up in Philadelphia, he will be  thanked profusely for his service over 15 years with the Phillies organization, and a lock for the Phillies’ Wall of Fame as one of the best catchers ever to wear the uniform.

Rk Player WAR/pos PA From To Age
1 Darren Daulton 20.9 4188 1983 1997 21-35
2 Andy Seminick 15.9 3449 1943 1957 22-36
3 Stan Lopata 15.6 2976 1948 1958 22-32
4 Spud Davis 15.2 2712 1928 1939 23-34
5 Carlos Ruiz 15.2 2585 2006 2012 27-33
6 Clay Dalrymple 13.6 3331 1960 1968 23-31
7 Mike Lieberthal 13.6 4613 1994 2006 22-34
8 Bob Boone 11.5 4152 1972 1981 24-33
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/18/2012.

Please don’t get sexy: Travis d’Arnaud

The Phillies have made trade after trade over the last five years, sending hoards of prospects out to be developed by other organizations in exchange for established veteran pieces. When a franchise sacrifices well regarded players of tomorrow to aid today’s quest for glory, you can’t help but expect some of the kids to blossom into studs and make you pay for discarding them, especially when the prospect exodus reaches Gillick/Amaro altitudes. Strangely, this hasn’t even come close to happening to the Phillies yet. From Josh Outman to Anthony Gose, no former Phillies farm hand (I’m not counting re-treads like Ryan Vogelsong or Travis Blackley, just prospects) has done anything so impressive that we’re daydreaming about them in a Phillies uniform. Certainly, none of them have made their way directly into the flight path of your beloved franchise.

Now, both those things seem like they may happen at once.

Travis d’Arnaud is a New York Met, and while one player a franchise does not make, you’re about to see the young man that was the centerpiece of the Roy Halladay deal (trust me, it was never Kyle Drabek) 19 times a year. Let’s talk about how much that’s going to suck for a minute.

D’Arnaud is a very interesting prospect because he personifies positional scarcity. There’s nothing overwhelmingly impressive about his skill set. The bat grades out as average right now with some room to grow (I’d really like to see him simplify his set-up, especially by ditching the high leg kick) and I’ve had more than one source put a 6 on the power (I’d go 55, but we’re splitting hairs a bit there) thanks to great leverage in the swing and terrific hip roation. That’s a nice little start but it doesn’t scream “franchise altering bat.” Then you factor in d’Arnaud’s ability to catch, catch really well, throw well and that you project his body to stay behind the plate forever and suddenly we’re looking at one of baseball’s most intriguing prospects. Up the middle talent is hard enough to unearth. This is an up the middle player that shows you four average or better tools right now and still has some developing to do.

Yes, d’Arnaud has had injuries left and right. They all seem to be freak occurrences. It’s not something that I’d be overly concerned about at the moment. It’s a possibility that d’Arnaud possesses a fragility as general and well rounded as his skill set. I’d have only minor reservations about acquiring him.

When you head on over to the fangraphs leaderboards to look at catchers who wield an arsenal of skills as deep a d’Arnaud, you’re not going to find anyone who’s worth less than 3 annual WAR. This is a special player who I think is going to make some All Star rosters and maybe accrue some even more prestigious accolades if he has an outlier year or two in his prime. The jump from Triple-A to MLB is jarring, so I don’t expect him to make you jealous right away. But damn if I don’t think Travis d’Arnaud is gonna get sexy on us.