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Some Thoughts on the Carlos Ruiz Contract

Earlier today, the Phillies and catcher Carlos Ruiz agreed to continue their partnership by agreeing to a three-year contract worth $26 million. The deal also includes incentives and a fourth year club option worth $4.5 million with a $500,000 buyout. Ruiz turns 35 years old on January 22.

Dating back to the off-season following the 2010 season, only one catcher has earned a contract greater than two years in length. The Marlins gave John Buck a three-year, $18 million back in November 2010. Seven others were given contracts of two years in length. The rest were given one-year deals. Amaro is stepping into relatively uncharted waters in order to retain Ruiz. To put the deal in perspective, MLB Trade Rumors predicted a two-year, $14 million contract for Ruiz. It would have been in line with historical precedent.

Player Team Yrs Amount Signed
Gerald Laird Braves 2 $3,300,000 2013
Russell Martin Pirates 2 $17,000,000 2013
David Ross Red Sox 2 $6,200,000 2013
Ramon Hernandez Rockies 2 $6,400,000 2012
John Buck Marlins 3 $18,000,000 2011
Miguel Olivo Mariners 2 $7,000,000 2011
A.J. Pierzynski White Sox 2 $8,000,000 2011
Yorvit Torrealba Rangers 2 $6,250,000 2011

Ruiz is the first catcher taken off the board in a catching-rich market that also includes Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He was generating interest from a handful of teams including the Rockies and Red Sox. GM Ruben Amaro is making no friends among the other 29 GM’s as he is heavily influencing the market for mid-tier outfielders with the Marlon Byrd signing and the catching market with Ruiz. Those GM’s who plan to aggressively pursue McCann, for instance, must now do so knowing he can use the Ruiz contract as leverage to ask for more guaranteed years. (If a 35-year-old can get three guaranteed, the soon-to-be 30-year-old McCann can steadfastly negotiate five or even six years.)

Since 1991, only seven catchers 35 years old or older had a season in which they qualified for the batting title. There are nine player-seasons in total, with Pierzynski and Benito Santiago repeating. The only above-average offensive outputs came from Jorge Posada in 2007 (153 OPS+) and Pierzynski last year (117). The rest were around the league average or worse. Going by Wins Above Replacement, half were able to beat the average (2 WAR), but only Posada went above and beyond (5.4 WAR).

We can lower the plate appearance threshold to 17 player-seasons, removing to some degree the survivorship bias. It’s not a great-looking group:

Player WAR/pos PA Year Age Tm
Jorge Posada 5.4 589 2007 35 NYY
A.J. Pierzynski 2.9 520 2012 35 CHW
Benito Santiago 2.6 517 2002 37 SFG
Jason Varitek 2.3 518 2007 35 BOS
Carlton Fisk 1.9 501 1991 43 CHW
A.J. Pierzynski 1.6 529 2013 36 TEX
Ivan Rodriguez 1.4 515 2007 35 DET
Terry Steinbach 1.4 465 1998 36 MIN
Brad Ausmus 0.6 451 2005 36 HOU
Terry Steinbach 0.6 489 1997 35 MIN
Jason Kendall 0.5 490 2010 36 KCR
Jason Varitek 0.5 483 2008 36 BOS
Benito Santiago 0.4 515 2001 36 SFG
Tony Pena 0.3 450 1992 35 BOS
Paul Lo Duca 0.2 488 2007 35 NYM
Jason Kendall 0.1 526 2009 35 MIL
Brad Ausmus -0.3 502 2006 37 HOU
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/18/2013.

Since 2009, Ruiz has posted WARs of 2.7, 4.1, 2.8, 4.5, and 1.7. If Ruiz matches his 2013 WAR next season (which would be slightly below-average), he will have had the sixth-best season by a catcher age 35 or older in the last 23 years. But it’s not really 2014 or even 2015 that we’re worried about; it’s the controversial third guaranteed year in 2016, when Ruiz will be 37 years old, that is worrisome.

Player WAR/pos PA Year Age Tm
Mike Piazza 2.9 439 2006 37 SDP
Benito Santiago 2.6 517 2002 37 SFG
Greg Myers 2.4 369 2003 37 TOR
Jorge Posada 1.6 438 2009 37 NYY
Jason Varitek 1.5 425 2009 37 BOS
Benito Santiago 1.5 434 2003 38 SFG
Jorge Posada 1.3 451 2010 38 NYY
Terry Steinbach 1.2 380 1999 37 MIN
Ivan Rodriguez 0.1 448 2009 37 TOT
Ivan Rodriguez -0.1 421 2010 38 WSN
Brad Ausmus -0.2 397 2007 38 HOU
Brad Ausmus -0.3 502 2006 37 HOU
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/18/2013.

Again, keep survivorship bias in mind. Catchers that are 37 years old and not that good either already retired or weren’t given responsibilities that included grabbing 350 or more plate appearances. The above list is the best of the best among old catchers and it’s uninspiring. Amaro is making a $26 million bet with the odds stacked firmly against him.

However, retaining Ruiz was necessary. The Phillies had two options otherwise: jump into the bidding for McCann and/or Saltalamacchia, or settle for a lessor option such as Dioner Navarro. The first option would have left them with very little wiggle room to round out the rest of the roster and it would have added yet another lengthy, bloated contract to the pile. The second option would have been a step backwards in terms of their ability to compete in 2014. Additionally, for whatever it’s worth, Ruiz has developed a great rapport with the pitching staff.

Noticeably absent? In-house options. The Phillies have had a great deal of trouble developing their own catchers over the years. Jason Jaramillo, Lou Marson, Sebastian Valle, and Tommy Joseph have all failed in one way or another, even once they left the organization. Amaro traded away the one catcher who looks like he might pan out, Travis D’Arnaud, in the Roy Halladay deal. Cameron Rupp has had exactly one season above A-ball. No matter what the Phillies did, they were going to pay for a catcher, whether through free agency or via trade as they do not yet have a Major League-caliber starting catcher in the system.

Amaro certainly went out of his way to both overpay and give an extra guaranteed year to Ruiz, and Ruiz is unlikely to be league-average or better throughout the duration of the contract, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small blunder. Ruiz fits a specific niche for the Phillies and it takes the pressure off of them to rush Joseph back from a concussion or rely too heavily on an inexperienced Rupp. Now, the Phillies can turn their attention to other areas of need, which now seems to be the starting rotation. (Oh, please God, not the bullpen.)