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 Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/18/2012.

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17 comments

  1. TomG

    December 19, 2012 08:52 AM

    Bummer. I agree that opting not to re-sign Ruiz is probably the best organizational move but, Ruiz being a guy who contributed so much without ever costing the club as much as he was worth, I also think giving him the ol’ “Thanks Chooch, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out” treatment is a bit sad.

    If he has a year in 2013 anything like the one he had in 2012, we can expect to hear cries of “Sign Chooch to an extension!” from the fan base; also, expect to see crowds with pitchforks and torches showing up at RAJ’s house if Amaro fails to keep Chooch. There’ll be, in other words, a lot of pressure from below to sign a guy whose best year will definitely be behind him by then.

    Good. I hope there is – not because I think we should re-sign him, but rather because, after all he’s done, letting Chooch go shouldn’t be easy.

    Of course, if they don’t make a real effort to keep Utley, I’ll be one of the guys with a pitchfork and torch. This may be nothing more than sentimentality on my part, but it would be a crime to let Chase Utley end his career as anything other than a Phillie.

  2. JM

    December 19, 2012 09:46 AM

    If the Phillies contend, Utley and Ruiz will be back on Jimmy Rollins type of deals. If not, well, the Yankees need a catcher and a DH. I agree on an emotional level that it would be more of a crime to let Utley go than Rollins. J-Roll might be the mouth of the Phillies, but Utley is the one that makes them go…

  3. GB

    December 19, 2012 11:13 AM

    Utley’s knee problems muddle the issue as he’s played 115, 103 and 83 games the last 3 seasons and has not been the same player on the field…plus he is 34 as well. Its going to be interesting what happens, guess it depends on how Utley, Ruiz and Halladay perform, but also Galvis, Joseph, Valle, Frandsen, Biddle and who else Amaro brings in over the next 12 months

  4. Tom

    December 19, 2012 11:23 AM

    Random thoughts on the article: I didn’t realize how much higher Daulton’s WAR/pos was higher than Lieby’s, and then looking at Lieberthal’s stats I was surprised that his WAR in the 1999 season was only 3.2, granted I was 10 when that season happened but i just remembered it being a monstrous season.

  5. Bill Baer

    December 19, 2012 11:31 AM

    Lieberthal’s 1999 line:

    .300/.363/.551

    Average NL hitter’s 1999 line:

    .268/.342/.429

    He had an OPS+ of 124. Basically, there was a ton of offense back in the late-1990′s, so Lieberthal’s great season was only slightly better than par for the course.

    Just for fun, an average NL hitter’s 2012 line:

    .254/.318/.400

  6. Pencilfish

    December 19, 2012 11:47 AM

    It’s possible Ruiz is signed to a short-term extension, until we see what becomes of Joseph and Valle. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

    Trading him in mid-season to get some prospects or other MLB players means throwing the towel in 2013. What would you do if the Phillies are in contention for a playoff spot on July 31st? Should Eric Kratz be the starting catcher in the NLDS?

  7. ScoJo

    December 19, 2012 01:43 PM

    I love Chooch as much as the next guy, and I understand there’s no sure thing awaiting at Double-A or Triple-A. I read comments that throw out the idea of a short extension. What is a short extension? Two years? One? The other major factor of course would Chooch want to sign for only 1 or 2 years? I have my doubts when all it would take would be one team to offer three years. If Russell Martin can land a nice 2 year deal ($17M) with declining offensive skills outside of HRs, I’m sure Ruiz could be offered a three-year deal. That’s definitely one too many years for a starting catcher. He could be solid for another four years, but I wouldn’t bank on it.

  8. EricL

    December 19, 2012 02:05 PM

    I actually suggested exploring trading Ruiz at the deadline last year, as he was probably the guy on the Phillies with the most trade value at the time – MVP candidate at a position of scarcity with another very cheap year on his contract.

    Of course, that didn’t happen and a few people thought I was some sort of jerk (which I am, but not for wanting to trade Ruiz), but I think the return might have been very interesting.

  9. Sundar

    December 19, 2012 03:55 PM

    How exactly can you call 2013 a transition year when all the contracts of all the players mentioned are up after the season and we\’re 2 months away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Clearwater?

  10. Sulla

    December 19, 2012 04:05 PM

    Of all the Phillies, Chooch is the one you re sign.

    He is hands down the Phils best clutch hitter and brings a host of intangibles.

    That being said Rube let\’s him go next year…

  11. Pencilfish

    December 19, 2012 04:07 PM

    ScoJo,

    A multi-year offer to Ruiz depends to a large extent on his performance in 2013 and the Phillies\’ record as we near the trade deadline. Another factor to consider is who can replace him in 2014 and later. The FA choices for good all-around catchers next off-season are few. The two big names are Ruiz and McCann. I can\’t think of anyone else at this point. If Joseph or Valle fail to perform in 2013, the Phillies may have less leverage in any negotiations.

    Catchers are primarily valued for their game-calling and defensive skills, not offensive. Therefore, you should look at Martin\’s new contract (and perhaps Ruiz\’s future one) on how well he is projected to retain these skills as he ages.

  12. larry

    December 20, 2012 01:09 AM

    pretty sad bunch of catchers for phillies history
    at least we have the best lefthanded throwing catcher in MLB history…

  13. Bill Baer

    December 20, 2012 08:04 AM

    WAR has an inherent bias against catchers, so if you’re looking at WAR relative to other positions, you’re probably going to think poorly of them. But yeah, the Phillies have not had a premier catcher the way they have had a premier third and second baseman, for instance.

  14. awh

    December 20, 2012 10:31 PM

    Well, unless Ruiz has a monster year and wants to cash in, which IMO is unlikely, I can see him being re-signed by the Phillies.

    If what you say is true and there really won\’t be anyone in the system ready, then extending Chooch makes sense as long as the contract is reasonable.

  15. John Paul

    December 21, 2012 10:30 AM

    The return on Ruiz would be interesting, especially with Kratz as the back up. If Kratz can reproduce 2012 and the Phillie\’s can reload the farm system that would be more than ideal but realistically, the Phillie\’s would be looking to sell high. Not too many teams would be willing to give up two or three of their top 15 prospects just for a better shot to win now. Likewise, how many teams have two or three prospects that would be valuable enough for RAJ to trade Chooch and take his chances on Kratz and Lerud. If Chooch produces the same year as last year, I don\’t think a trade will happen unless another club approaches us and Kratz production is adequate. Interesting, indeed.

  16. Phillie697

    December 21, 2012 02:39 PM

    Any person espousing a team strategy that depends on Eric Kratz should immediately be sent to the neurologist for possible head trauma.

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