The club will accept the advice issued by readers last winter when they urged the front office to pair Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste behind the plate and be done with it.
One fearless prediction that hasn’t happened is the one where the Phils bring in another catcher. Although Pat Gillick has expressed satisfaction with the current situation, which includes Carlos Ruiz as the starter and Chris Coste as the backup, history has shown the GM’s preference for brass tacks veterans with experience, signified by the Sal Fasano signing in 2006 and Rod Barajas in 2007. Both signings proved unnecessary, even costly.
It appears the team is finally willing to put old-school scouting biases aside and accept the fact they're sitting on something unconventional yet perfectly fine. That means giving the backup job to Coste, the 34-year-old, self-made player who worked his way through beer leagues to become Philadelphia’s newest feel-good story. Coste drew headlines during 2006 spring training for his hot hitting and would go on to hit .328 his rookie season, drawing praise from the pitching staff as a capable handler.
The next sesaon, the Phils finally turned Ruiz loose. The soon-to-be 29-year-old is another player whose ascent to the Majors was an unexpected surprise. Signed as an amateur free agent in 1998, he climbed through the system without fanfare. Things changed in 2004, when he took over the starting duties in Double-A Reading, hitting .284/.338/.484 with 17 home runs in 349 at bats. He continued to climb, and in '06, made his Major League debut to mixed reviews.
When it came time to address the catching situation last off-season, the Phillies erred on the side of caution, signing Barajas to a one-year, $2.5 million contract with a club option, pushing Coste back down to the cruel world of the minors and making Ruiz the backup. Barajas lost his job almost immediately to Ruiz and would make only 147 plate appearances the entire season. Coste, who quietly battled through nagging injuries, would finish as the backup. After the season, the Phils spent a quarter mil to have Barajas go away.
In recognition of his fine season, Ruiz was named to the Topps Rookie All-Star team. Nicknamed Chooch, he contributed a .259/.340/.396 line with six homers and 54 RBIs, rounding out the bottom of the lineup with better-than-expected production and excellent gap power, smacking 29 doubles and two triples in 374 at bats.
Above all, he turned out to be a fine catcher. Able to overcome the language barrier, he demonstrated toughness and grit, unafraid to mix it up with umpires on his pitchers' behalf. He has a rifle arm that keeps runners on their toes, at any base, and plus speed for a catcher.
According to Hardball Times Win Shares, Ruiz is a Top 6 National League backstop overall, and ranks 4th for defense. The situation appears set.
Beerleaguer projections: I saw the 2008 Bill James projections passed along on Todd Zolecki’s blog, and if the numbers hold, Ruiz will be a borderline All-Star next season (.282, 33 2B, 3 3B, 12 HR, 69 RBI, 58 R).
That’s a little hopeful. In working on the Harball Times team preview, I can tell you the THT projections for Ruiz are much more realistic, only a slight improvement over his 2007 finish. I’d like to see Ruiz kept under 400 at bats again next season to keep him fresh. By mid-season, he was noticeably worn down. Once they started interspersing more Coste, Ruiz bounced back.
A common quibble about Ruiz was his plate discipline. Indeed, his 3.6 P/PA were tied for the fewest on the team. However, his stikeouts and walks evened out (49/42), especially late in the season. Expect better patience to carry forward and improved production as a result. A 60 RBI, 8-10 homer, 92-95 OPS+ season would be a reasonable improvement.
THT asked me not to spill the beans on the projections, but I can tell you that if you’re hoping for a Coste prediction, you will be disappointed. Instead, they’ve included a Jason Jaramillo projection, and I think it’s a wise call. Unlike previous seasons, Coste is in danger of being caught from behind by a prospect, instead of blocked by a veteran. The Phillies really like Jaramillo, a 25-year-old nuts and bolts switch-hitter who finished strongly and reportedly calls a good game. Fresh off his tour with Team USA, expect to see plenty of Jaramillo during the spring.
As for Coste, he went from a 119 OPS+ in 2006 to an 83 in 2007. Unfortunately, '07 may be the better indicator of Coste, whose flaws may no longer be a secret to opposing pitchers. Age and irregular action may also work against him.
Minor transactions: The Phillies have signed LHP Cory Willey and 1B Angel Negron, according to Baseball America.