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One More Year With Lieberthal

As we’re piecing together next season’s lineup and debating whether or not Abreu should leadoff or how to break up all the lefties, one thing remains certain, the bottom of the order is set in stone:  David Bell and Mike Lieberthal will be playing nearly everyday in 2006.  Many people have talked about picking up one of the several better catchers available this off-season, including Ramon Hernandez (before the Orioles gobbled him up), Paul LoDuca (before the Mets got him), Bengie Molina (who’s still available), or Javier Valentin (looking for a full-time gig) to name a few.  However, it seems that the Phillies are content to play out the season with Mike Lieberthal.  Both Lieberthal and his partner in crime David Bell have one year remaining on their contracts, so while their jobs are secure for 2006, they likely will not be for much time after.

Now, as we all remember – despite our best efforts to forget – the Phils did make a move at catcher recently.  That is, they let Todd Pratt go to the Braves and signed another veteran, Sal Fasano, to fulfill the backup duties.  But if Lieberthal gets hurt, or happens to need another knee surgery, it’s unlikely that Fasano will be able to fill in effectively as an everyday starter.  So, with the predicted demise Lieberthal era fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to start looking to the future of Phillies backstops.

You may have already heard of Carlos Ruiz, who is currently number three on the Phillies depth chart.   The 26-year-old has yet to make his MLB debut but put up decent numbers last season with Scranton batting .300/.354/.458 with 25 doubles.  He doesn’t have much power, but that not something the Phillies particularly need right now.  What they do need is a catcher for the future.  Therefore it is surprising that Fasano is scheduled to be the backup and not Ruiz.  Next season (2007) the Phils will essentially be left without a catcher so now would be the perfect opportunity to give Ruiz a shot in the big leagues.

In fact, the Phillies farm system is chock full of decent catchers.  Close on the heels of Ruiz is Jason Jaramillo, the Phils 2nd round pick in 2004.  After spending last season in Lakewood, he will likely be fast-tracked to Reading this year setting up an eventual title fight with Ruiz to be the first Phillies catcher in the post-Lieberthal era.  Although Ruiz is already on the 40-man roster and currently has the inside track, Jaramillo earlier this week received a non-roster invitation to Spring Training.  His bat is his biggest asset so while in Clearwater he will have the perfect opportunity to impress special hitting instructor Michael Jack Schmidt.

Even further down the line, the Phils have three more catching prospects:  Louis Marson, Charles Cresswell, and Tuffy Gosewisch.  They selected Marson and Cresswell in the summer 2004 draft and along with Jaramillo gave the Phils three catchers within the first ten rounds.  Gosewisch was drafted last June after an impressive showing in the College World Series.  So if Ruiz or Jaramillo don’t pan out or the Phils need a young catcher to complete a mid-season trade, they should still be alright.

Thus the point here seems to be patience.  Whether Mike Lieberthal has a bit of a resurgence in 2006 or stinks to high heaven, it’s unlikely he’ll be back in the starting role in 2007.  But the Phils should be sufficiently prepared for his departure as long as one of these youngsters gets his shot at the big leagues this season.  I’m not sure how Manuel plans on using Fasano but Ruiz at least should get at least an opportunity to make his case for being the Phillies catcher of the future.

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