Phillies Should Consider Trading for Their Catcher of the Future

Back in November, the Phillies signed catcher Carlos Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million contract with a fourth year club option for $4.5 million. Given the recent 25-year, $2.5 billion TV deal the Phillies just signed with Comcast SportsNet, the team won’t be hurt too much even if Ruiz provides little value on the contract over the duration of those three guaranteed years. Still, the Phillies should be preparing for Ruiz, soon to be 35 years old, to decline.

In fact, Ruiz has already shown signs of decline. Bothered by plantar fasciitis and a strained right hamstring, Ruiz posted an adjusted OPS of 90, his lowest mark since 2008. His walk rate dropped to a career-low five percent after being as high as 13 percent in 2010. His .100 ISO tied for his lowest mark over the last five years and his .291 BABIP was also his lowest since 2009, a result of consistently making weaker contact.

The Phillies’ two highest catching prospects are Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp. Joseph was bothered by a concussion and took just 131 trips to the plate in the Minors in 2013. There were rumors Joseph would have to switch from catcher to first base, but he appears committed to bouncing back behind the dish. In Eric Longenhagen’s scouting report, he grades Joseph as a 35 hitter with a 40 ceiling and passable defense. But a lot has to go right for him to earn a consistent job at the Major League level. He can start this season with a strong effort between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. If he plays well, he could earn a shot as a September call-up.

Rupp got a taste of the Majors as a September call-up last season, hitting .308 in 14 trips to the plate. In the Minors, he started at Double-A for the first time and eventually earned a promotion to Triple-A in mid-June, posting decent numbers at both levels. At Triple-A he struggled more, striking out 5.5 times for every one walk compared to less than three times for every one walk at Double-A. He has decent raw power, as Longenhagen discussed here last September, but the swinging and missing will siphon some of the value out of his bat. Like Joseph, he plays passable defense.

In both players, if everything goes right, we’re looking at capable back-up catchers in the 0.5-1.5 WAR range (think Jose Lobaton). If Ruiz stays healthy and productive, either or both of Rupp and Joseph would be nice to have on the roster. But in the more likely event that Ruiz succumbs to the effects of old age, the Phillies might be better off trading for their catcher of the future.

Last night, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported that the Astros may make Jason Castro available depending on the progress of catching prospect Max Stassi and the team’s ability to sign Castro to a contract extension. Castro, 26, is eligible for arbitration for the first time and can become a free agent after the 2016 season.

In his first season as the Astros’ full-time catcher, Castro put up a 4.5 WAR season with a .276/.350/.485 line, good for a .361 wOBA. He drew walks at a 10 percent clip and posted a .209 ISO, the second-highest mark among MLB catchers (min. 300 plate appearances), sandwiched between Evan Gattis and Brian McCann. His wOBA was fourth-best behind Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, and Yadier Molina. According to scouting reports, Castro is a plus-defender as well, despite having trouble blocking pitches in the dirt.

Here are a couple of fun heat maps for Castro from the 2013 season:

If the Astros make Castro available, the Phillies should strongly consider trading for him, even if it costs them a top prospect like Maikel Franco and/or Jesse Biddle. Perhaps with the exception of J.P. Crawford, no one in the Phillies’ system projects to be as valuable as a Major Leaguer as Castro will be going forward. With the new TV deal, the Phillies should then be able to easily sign Castro to a contract extension at some point before the end of 2016, securing themselves a catcher of the future. Of course, Castro isn’t the only option, but he is a perfect example of the type of player the Phillies should be looking to acquire. Good catchers are very hard to find, especially when they’re relatively cheap and under team control for multiple years.

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