Ruiz's return: Same 'old' Phillies

Phillies starting pitcher Roy Halladay celebrates with Carlos Ruiz in 2010. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Phillies starting pitcher Roy Halladay celebrates with Carlos Ruiz in 2010. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Posted: November 20, 2013

Ruben Amaro Jr. has heard all the jokes by now. He may not be laughing, but he hears them. The Phillies like the Old-Timers Game promotion so much, they're going to hold 81 of them at Citizens Bank Park next season. The 2014 team photo will be taken by Matthew Brady. When Amaro promised he'd help build a dynasty, he didn't say it was going to be the Ming Dynasty.

Amaro knew he would deal with the continuing perception that the Phillies' roster has fallen and can't get up when he and catcher Carlos Ruiz agreed to a new three-year contract. Ruiz becomes the sixth player who will be at least 35 when spring training opens, and that number doesn't count Ryan Howard (34) or Jonathan Papelbon (33).

We're not talking about inexpensive or marginal reserves on that veteran list, wily pinch-hitters or mop-up starters or dependable backups. We're talking about Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Howard, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd, Mike Adams, and Papelbon.

The first five guys on the list played in the World Series four years ago . . . and they're still here! Not just still here, but still here and making a collective $85 million in 2014. The franchise has kept them all around for a number of reasons, all very good at the time.

Signing Ruiz made sense because he was a better option than any of the righthanded-hitting catchers out there. The Phillies couldn't add another lefthanded bat and they like Ruiz behind the plate. Plus, he was relatively affordable and coming off a pretty strong back half of the season in 2013. But, yes, he will be 35 in January.

The five players who helped win the championship probably will not be around to receive the next World Series ring. The best they can hope for is a Med Alert bracelet. They are playing out the final acts of what was the best era in Phillies baseball, and this is how it ends. Not with a crash of cymbals, but with a soft fade-out.

As they move forward, the Phils continue to rely on the power of wishful thinking, which didn't do much for them last season. If they are to compete, or even just do better than the 73 wins of 2013, almost all of those veterans have to stay on the field and produce at something close to their career numbers. That's fairly unlikely, but it is where the Phillies are right now.

It is where they will be until the current sets of contracts expire and a long-delayed rebuilding will have to take place. Until then, the Phillies are like a child who still carries around a much-loved blanket that was quite nice in its day but has grown faded and frayed over time.

The security the franchise hopes to get from retaining the familiar core is supposed to help on the field and in the stands, where the customers are starting to tap their toes waiting for the next era to begin. It would be a lot easier to do that, of course, if the last era would finally end.

From a business standpoint, it makes sense to wring every bit of good will possible from the legacies of Utley, Howard, and Rollins. From a baseball standpoint, if they are healthy and still able to approach home plate without the aid of a walker, it also makes sense, considering the equally expensive and risky options out there.

Amaro is not to blame for the spot the Phils are in. The franchise is a victim of its previous success and in having star players it wanted to keep around, but couldn't do so without taking on a huge mortgage. The general manager's job, however, is to get the Phillies out of this spot eventually. Everyone agrees on that, although no one seems to know when "eventually" is, least of all Amaro.

As long as Rollins, Utley, and Howard are around, there isn't going to be a rebuilding. Amaro looked at that, looked at his options, and signed Ruiz to fill the catcher's slot, just as he studied the landscape and brought in the 36-year-old Byrd for right field.

Ruiz struggled after coming back from his 25-game PED suspension last season, but he went from a .291 to a .421 slugging percentage in the second half of the season. If he hadn't, Ruiz probably wouldn't have gotten the new contract, but his play at the end allows the Phillies to engage in more wishful thinking.

Amaro doesn't have a salary cap, but he does have a budget and he now has $136 million committed to nine guys for 2014. That doesn't leave a lot to go around for the 16 others, but stars come at a price, especially the ones who keep hanging around.

It's no joke, even if it seems like one. The Phillies are old and committed to getting older before they can get younger. The team can't get its wheels free of the ruts from the past, and the general manager can't do much about that except listen to the jokes. That's probably getting old, too.


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