Spring training is months away, but in the interest of thoughtful conversation, let's focus on Carlos Ruiz, and how the rookie catcher factors into the plans for 2007.
For a position that might have been the worst single spot on the team for half the season, catcher isn’t an area many people are talking about. Chances are quite good that Mike Lieberthal, starting catcher since 1996, will not return next season, leaving Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz, two sophomores, positioned to split time behind the plate.
Coste’s surprising contribution is fresh in our memory. As the season progressed, he started most games, including a bold show of faith during the final weeks of the season when all three catchers were available. Most notably, Charlie Manuel gave him back-to-back starts on Sept. 27 and 28 in D.C., including the 14-inning marathon. The 33-year-old finished his rookie year hitting .328/.378/.505 with 7 homers, 14 doubles and a flair for dramatic, clutch hits.
Even those who have strongly endorsed the career of Carlos Ruiz probably have a slightly negative view of his scattered rookie season. During his first call-up, from May 6 through 26, the 27-year-old collected only five hits, none of them for extra bases.
But during the first game of his second call-up on July 4, he went 3-for-6 with a home run. From there, his numbers steadily climbed. He finished with a surprisingly decent line of .261/.316/.435 with three homers, a double and a triple in 69 at bats.
I have a strong hunch that communication and comfort played the biggest role in deciding which catcher would start on a particular night, a situation that didn’t bode well for the young Panamanian. By the time Sal Fasano was ready to come off the DL in mid-July, Coste had already started his offensive tear and had good success handling certain pitchers. Rather than designate Coste, and with Lieberthal back from his hip injury, the Phillies correctly waived Sal. By then, Ruiz had already been optioned back to Scranton for a second time.
With the Barons, Ruiz sizzled. In 100 games, he hit .308/.389/.505 with 16 homers, 25 doubles and four steals, amassing one of the most complete seasons in the International League.
The feat might be more impressive to Phans had he been five years younger, or graced the cover of Baseball America. Keep in mind his circumstances are slightly different. Ruiz got a late start in baseball, and was originally signed as a second baseman. For a while, he stood in the shadows of University of Miami product Russ Jacobson, who never panned out. It wasn’t until 2004 in Reading, during Ryan Howard’s minor league rise to fame, that Ruiz made a name for himself, both offensively and defensively.
The Phils are sitting on a positive situation with Ruiz. Here's a guy who’s graduated from their system with high marks and appears ready to contribute. If he logs even half the games behind the plate for the Phils next season, he will be a year younger than Paul Lo Duca was when he finally became a starter with Los Angeles.
Lo Duca, featured prominently during the NLCS, is the inspiration for this post. In an earlier thread, one of you – possibly dajafi from The Good Phight – accurately compared Ruiz to the Mets’ catcher. They’re both short, stocky right-handed hitters, who developed late and have similar minor-league totals. They’re both contact hitters, although Ruiz needs to prove it and sustain it against big-league pitching. After Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Chase Utley, Ruiz appears to have Abraham Nunez-type speed, which is very good for a catcher.
Under Manuel, young hitters like Utley, Victorino, Howard and even Coste have made smooth transitions from the minors, and there’s no reason to believe Ruiz can’t keep climbing. In brief action, specifically in September, Ruiz hit the ball hard and showed a pretty good eye.
Even if he earns only half the starts in 2007, Ruiz will become a major factor in the success or failure of the Phillies. He hasn't received much attention yet, but the spotlight will soon shine his way. At the very, very best, we’re looking at a future No. 2 hitter like Lo Duca, but those goals are far down the road. For now, handling the pitching staff represents a bigger challenge, one that could define his early career and become an important storyline in the 2007 season.