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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.