Inside the Phillies: Phillies should bring Ruiz back

Posted: September 09, 2013

Some players will hide it. (Jayson Werth declined to answer most questions about free agency until, one day, he asked an onlooker, "Where do you think I'll go?") It can consume others. (Shane Victorino started chatting about a five-year extension two springs ago, and it hung over him.) It is unimportant to the most aloof. ("If I have a situation where there is a chance to win," Roy Halladay said, "I might pay them.")

Carlos Ruiz is a man who refuses to conceal his emotions. He shed tears on a picnic bench behind Bright House Field in the spring when he addressed a 25-game suspension for Adderall use. He pumps his fist and yells after a clutch strikeout by a Phillies pitcher no matter how meaningless the game. He can be one of the loudest in the clubhouse and dugout.

And, yes, he thinks about free agency.

"If I said no, I'd be lying to you," Ruiz said.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was steadfast in recent weeks when labeling catcher as one of his top priorities for this winter. It was a challenge to Ruiz, one of the most popular players inside and outside the clubhouse. There is no easy answer to a complex situation, but the sensible one is extending the 34-year-old Panamanian.

The free-agent market offers few alternatives - specifically ones who bat righthanded and are adept at defense. The minor-league system presented a fast riser in Tommy Joseph until concussions rendered 2013 a lost season. He will go to Florida in October to catch in the Instructional League, but the 22-year-old's future at the position is murky.

Erik Kratz and Cameron Rupp could provide fine depth, although neither is viewed as a guy who could catch 110 games. The question is whether Ruiz is even that player - he has required a trip to the disabled list in each of the last five seasons.

Ruiz turns 35 in January. His production this season dipped to 2008 levels, when he was regarded as a no-hit, all-glove backstop. Then again, there are different prisms through which to view his 2013 numbers.

Some Phillies officials, and Ruiz, too, have blamed a poor approach to the start of his season. The catcher played in spring training, then waited four weeks for his first major-league game action. The drug suspension cost him money, pride, and confidence. He tried to atone for the lost time and started 2 for 20 at the plate. He mustered just three extra-base hits in his first 40 games. A right-hamstring strain cost him 29 more days.

"Definitely with everything that happened, it was tough for me," Ruiz said. "I came back from the suspension, then I got hurt. It's not an excuse, but it was hard to pick it up."

A torrid August in which he batted .333 with a .933 OPS (and 12 extra-base hits in 26 games) followed the early struggles. Three more weeks of .300 hitting could be the final piece of evidence for Amaro.

The general manager will consider the available options. Brian McCann is lefthanded and could return to Atlanta on a big-money contract. A.J. Pierzynski turns 37 in December, hits lefthanded, and carries a brash personality. (The Phillies, however, demonstrated they care less about clubhouse character - a Pat Gillick tenet - when they signed Jonathan Papelbon.)

That leaves Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Dioner Navarro. Saltalamacchia, 28, is earning $4.5 million in 2013 and will look for a payday. He is a switch-hitter not known for his defensive acuity. And his career numbers against lefthanders (a .599 OPS) suggest he would further add to the Phillies' problem of being too lefthanded.

Navarro, a former top Yankees prospect, has resurrected his career in Chicago, albeit in just 47 starts entering the weekend. If the Phillies are concerned about Ruiz's ability to handle a starter's workload as he ages, they could sign Navarro to supplement him and add depth. Navarro has always bashed lefthanded pitching. His defense is a liability.

Amaro could explore a trade for a catcher. Those are unusual, given the scarcity at the position and reluctance to part with such players. The best answer could be the same one from the last six years.

The Phillies talk about transition and a desire to foster younger players while still competing. The last two seasons exemplify the danger of such a strategy. Paying for a catcher in his late 30s is not ideal. The alternatives, plus Ruiz's recent resurgence, should force it.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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