One awkward swing by Marlon Byrd or off-balance tumble by Domonic Brown, and Ruf could transform from an afterthought looking at Opening Day from the outside in, to one of the crucial wild cards on which the Phillies will lean in their quest to put 2 straight years of playoff-less disappointment behind them.
The good-natured Nebraskan pointed to the fickle nature of his sport as he talked about an offseason in which his bosses appeared to pursue every possible means of replacing him.
He held up well for the roughly 20 minutes that reporters spent not only acknowledging the elephant in the room, but reminding him repeatedly that it was there. There were only a few moments when he appeared uncomfortable, when his eyes flitted and his voice hesitated, one of them occurring when he was asked about various comments that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made expressing skepticism about Ruf's viability as an everyday rightfielder.
"I hear most things that are written," Ruf said. "It's his opinion. I just have to prove to him, and not just him, but my teammates, everyone, that if that is my role on the team I can excel and help the team in that role. If it's coming off the bench, playing every other day or so to get a guy a break here and there, matchup, I just have to be ready for whatever role it might be."
Amaro sounded unequivocal when evaluating Ruf at the end of the season.
"Ruf is not a rightfielder," the GM said. "I think he can fill in for us. I think he can fill in in certain areas, but I can't sit here and tell you that he's an everyday player for us. He's going to have to fight for a job in some way, shape or form."
Nevertheless, Ruf projected ease and confidence as he expressed a sentiment that, at this point, he has no choice but to believe. That, as the baseball men say, these things work themselves out. Ruf does has a trump card, one that everybody who has watched this Phillies team wallow in a pitiful, powerless state of small-ball sub-mediocrity. In 330 plate appearances as a major leaguer, the former Creighton star has hit 17 home runs. Extrapolated over 162 games, that projects to 32 home runs in 629 plate appearances.
We can talk all we want about Ruf's defensive capabilities, but if the Phillies were to allow concerns about his glove to stand in the way of what they judged to be 30-home-run and .800-OPS potential, they would be an outlier in an increasingly power-starved game.
Less than 2 months ago, the Diamondbacks parted with two highly regarded prospects in order to acquire righthanded slugger Mark Trumbo, who features a tool set similar to the one Ruf has displayed over the past couple of seasons, liabilities and all. Trumbo plays poor defense, strikes out at a prolific rate, and fails to reach base far more often than you would hope for from an everyday outfielder.
While Ruf does not possess Trumbo's raw power, he also does not Trumbo's remarkable inability to draw walks. Last year, Ruf's .348 on-base percentage tied him with Chase Utley for the team lead among players with at least 50 plate appearances. His .806 OPS and 121 OPS+ ranked third (behind Utley and Brown). Yet Utley and Brown finished with twice as many plate appearances. And therein lies the issue. Ruf has logged the equivalent of about a half of a season of major league plate appearances.
Last year, the Phillies elected to give Delmon Young every opportunity to prove he was not an everyday player before finally summoning Ruf from the minors (although, in fairness, part of their intent was to allow Ruf to work on his defense). In Ruf's first month after his promotion, he hit .303/.410/.551 with five home runs and 29 strikeouts in 105 plate appearances. In his final 47 games, he hit .216/.314/.407 with nine home runs and 62 strikeouts in 188 plate appearances.
Now, ignore the fact that Ruf's numbers during his slump were similar to Trumbo's overall numbers in 2013 (.234/.294/.453, 34 HRs). The fact is, he was trending downward at the end of the season, and that was the front office's freshest memory as it headed into the offseason. Their decision to seek an upgrade was understandable, the signing on which they decided was a bit unorthodox.
The moves that really cast Ruf's future in doubt were the re-signings of infielder Kevin Frandsen and outfielder John Mayberry Jr., both righthanded hitters. Along with backup catcher Wil Nieves and a utilityman to be named later (likely Freddy Galvis or Reid Brignac), the Phillies have only one vacancy on their bench, one that seems likely to be filled by a lefthanded hitter (nonroster-invitee Bobby Abreu seems to be the early favorite in an undistinguished field).
Yet, we again remind you, these things tend to work themselves out. The Phillies are a better team with Ruf as their primary righthanded bench player than they are with Mayberry. Most of us have seen enough of both players to state that unequivocally. There is a very real role for Ruf as a righthanded counterpart to both Brown in leftfield and Ryan Howard at first base. Along with pinch-hitting duty and occasional spot duty for Byrd, Ruf could surpass 300 plate appearances even without extended duty as an injury replacement.
But to feature Ruf in that role, the Phillies would likely have to part ways with Mayberry, replacing him with a backup centerfielder like nonroster invitee Tony Gwynn Jr., who happens to hit lefthanded (and is a career .305/.372/.405 as a pinch-hitter in 147 career plate appearances). Mayberry and the Phillies recently agreed to a $1.5 million contract, one-third of which is guaranteed.
Nevertheless, the organization did trot Ruf out to the media yesterday along with roster locks Byrd, Mike Adams, and Cody Asche. The Phillies have plenty of flexibility with Mayberry. There are worse things than paying $1.5 million to an experienced outfielder capable of playing all three positions on call at Triple A. And if Mayberry, who is out of options, is claimed off waivers before the Phillies can send him to the minors, then his new team assumes his salary, and the Phillies are right where they would have been if they had nontendered him.
Ruf says the possibilities aren't worth worrying about. One way or another, something will work itself out.
Righthander Jonathan Pettibone, who was shut down for the last 2 months of the season, says his shoulder is healthy and that he will start spring training on the same schedule as the rest of the healthy pitchers in camp. Pettibone will be competing with Cuban signee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez for the final spot in the Phillies' rotation, behind Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy