Phillies' Erik Kratz looks to make most of opportunity

All of the guts, little of the glory: Erik Kratz, 32, hopes to earn an opening-day start with the Phillies after filling in capably for catcher Carlos Ruiz last season. Above, Kratz tags out Chipper Jones.
All of the guts, little of the glory: Erik Kratz, 32, hopes to earn an opening-day start with the Phillies after filling in capably for catcher Carlos Ruiz last season. Above, Kratz tags out Chipper Jones. (GREGORY SMITH / Associated Press)
Posted: February 12, 2013

The Phillies' projected opening-day catcher enjoyed the attention.

After the best season of his career, he was in demand and happily answered questions during a banquet stop at a hotel and casino in Bethlehem, Pa., late last month.

These are the best of times for Erik Kratz, a blue-collar worker from the town of Telford on the Bucks-Montgomery County line who refused to let years of rejection deter his pursuit of a big-league dream.

This, however, is not the ideal catching situation for the Phillies. Kratz's likely ascent to a starting role at the start of the season was made possible partly because he played so well last season, but mostly because Carlos Ruiz will not be available.

Shortly after the team picked up his $5 million option in late October, Ruiz was suspended for 25 games because he tested positive for the banned substance Adderall, a medication prescribed to people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Long before the offseason was over, the Phillies knew they would have to open another season without one of their all-star position players, which is the situation they face as pitchers and catchers report Tuesday for the start of spring training.

Two years ago second baseman Chase Utley failed to make it to the starting line, and last season Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard joined the season already in progress.

The Phillies are on record as saying they love the catching depth in their organization after acquiring prospect Tommy Joseph in the Hunter Pence deal at the trade deadline last year. But in the short term, it appears as if they will open the season with Kratz, a catcher who has never been on a big-league opening-day roster, and Humberto Quintero, a career backup who was signed as a minor-league free agent in November.

"I feel like I'm realistic, but maybe not realistic enough because I feel like every year I can open eyes and make the team out of spring training," Kratz said.

This time, the Phillies need Kratz to not only make the team out of spring training but to duplicate the kind of production he provided last year while Ruiz recovered from a nagging foot injury.

From July 25 through Aug. 31, Kratz started 23 games and batted .300, with seven doubles, five home runs, and 13 RBIs. Counting his time at triple-A Lehigh Valley, he finished the season with a career-high 17 home runs.

The Phillies went 23-15 in games started by Kratz, who won the admiration of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and the respect of the veteran starters in the rotation.

"I've never had this kind of opportunity, but there is nothing set in stone," Kratz said. "Until somebody writes it in stone and that first day when my name is in the lineup . . . that's when I will have cracked an opening-day roster. Until then, I'm going to take it like any other year where I'm trying to win a spot."

Kratz, 32, admitted, however, that it would mean "a lot" and be "an honor" to have Phillies opening-day catcher on his resumé.

"There is something to be said about breaking with the team, and hopefully it's because you're going to be somebody who helps the team from day one and not because you're just a fill-in," Kratz said. "It's an honor, but at the same time you have to prove that you should be there. That's the big leagues. You are always proving that you should be there."

Quintero, 33, played in 43 games with Kansas City last year and likely will open the season as the backup catcher unless the Phillies make another move in spring training.

Ruiz, 34, and coming off his first season as an all-star catcher, will have much to prove in 2013. The failed drug test was his second, and it opened a door of doubt about the best season of his career last year when he batted .325 with 32 doubles, 16 home runs, and 68 RBIs.

"I am sincerely regretful for my mistake in taking a prohibited stimulant," Ruiz said in a November statement. "I apologize to my teammates, the Phillies organization, and the Philadelphia fans. I will serve the imposed 25-game suspension to begin the season and I look forward to returning to the field and working toward bringing a championship back to Philadelphia in 2013."

Those are the only public words spoken by Ruiz since his suspension. He will be questioned more about the failed drug test in spring training, when he will be allowed to participate in Grapefruit League games. His ultimate challenge will be proving to the Phillies or another team that he should be paid as one of the game's elite catchers after his 2013 contract expires and he becomes a free agent.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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