The Phillies have a multitude of roster-related problems to solve this offseason, as Ian Riccaboni pointed out, but the catching situation is perhaps the most interesting. Carlos Ruiz is set to become a free agent, and while his early struggles rendered his return less likely, his .330/.375/.536 line since August 1 makes him an attractive option. While prospects Tommy Joseph and Sebastian Valle have disappointed, Cameron Rupp earned a September call-up, Gabriel Lino posted decent context-neutral numbers in Low-A as a 20-year old, and the Phils are very high on second-round pick Andrew Knapp.
It’s possible that Rupp or Knapp seizes the catching reins as soon as 2015 but that still leaves next year as a question mark. While the Phillies have been major players in free agency in recent years, the upcoming catching crop is fairly thin, and is loaded with career backups. Trades for starting catchers are also fairly rare.
Everything considered, the ideal situation is to retain Carlos Ruiz on a short-term basis.
With Rupp and Knapp on the horizon and a rebuild in order it’s not prudent to re-sign Chooch to a multi-year deal. However, it’s likely that he will receive a multi-year offer from someone else, as one of the top two free agent catchers.
Extending Ruiz the qualifying offer could solve the problem on both sides. If he accepts, having him around for 1 yr/$14 million isn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, the Phillies problem is typically guaranteeing too many years, whereas I would have gladly paid certain players more money per annum if the deals were shorter. If he declines, the Phillies will at least receive some form of compensation when he departs for greener pastures. If he declines, they can pair a prospect with a veteran backup and go from there. It’s a lot of money for a 35-year old who may only play 110 games, but if other teams are willing to bid on him for two-years, perhaps the higher salary on a one-year deal could entice him.
Another option is sign Ruiz to a two-year deal with a lower annual value and hope that his desire to stay with the Phillies outweighs a couple million dollars more he could earn on a similar deal elsewhere. In this scenario, Chooch would be the primary guy for 2014 before transitioning into mentor and trade bait the following season.
While Ruiz served a suspension earlier in the year and struggled out of the gate, he has torn up the league lately and remains atop the list of free agent catchers. From 2011-13, his 9.7 WAR leads the group by a relatively healthy margin over Brian McCann‘s 8.4.
While it’s easy to assume that Ruiz’s advantage stems from McCann’s health issues in recent years, the latter has actually played 14 more games over this span. Since 2011, Ruiz has hit .297/.369/.440, with a +5 fielding rating. McCann is at .256/.331/.447, with a +6 rating behind the plate. These are, statistically, the top two free agent catchers this offseason. McCann will absolutely sign a multi-year deal but the Phillies have no need to sign another aging player to a big deal. McCann is also a lefty and the Phils are loaded with them.
After Ruiz and McCann comes A.J. Pierzynski (old, left-handed) at 6.1 WAR and Jarrod Saltalamacchia at 5.9 WAR. Salty is young, and while he has had a decent season, he isn’t particularly great at anything. Though he switch-hits, he strikes out 30% of the time.
Then the list gets pretty ugly, with guys like John Buck, Geovany Soto, Kelly Shoppach and Kurt Suzuki, before giving way to the ugliness that is Ramon Hernandez, Humberto Quintero, Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Brayan Pena, and basically anyone else you would associate with being Greg Maddux‘s personal catcher if he were still around.
Ruiz represents the best option of all these players, even if he remains a .280/.325/.380 hitter moving forward. That bat has plenty of value when coupled with his upper echelon defensive skills and game-calling. He is definitely worth bringing back, given the Phillies current situation, but the issues are length, salary, and the impact on catching prospects.
There are worse things than pairing Rupp with, say, Gerald Laird for a year before reevaluating the situation if they opt against bringing him back. Chooch provides the Phillies with a better chance to compete than does the prospect/veteran tandem, and if he performs well while Rupp produces at Lehigh, Ruiz might become decent deadline trade-bait, regardless of the deal’s length.
The qualifying offer may restrict the Phillies elsewhere in free agency, and if they can acquire more than that 2-2.5 WAR by filling other needs, while spending less money, the qualifying offer gets dicey. Inversely, if he plays very well and the Phillies can deal him for a decent return, there is surplus value involved that can’t be innately identified right now.
The Phillies don’t have a clear-cut catching solution for 2014. Chooch is a right-handed bat capable of getting on base at an above average rate while adding defensive value. His skills won’t persist for four more years, but on a one- or two-year deal he will certainly benefit the Phillies, either with his own performance, through mentoring youngsters, as trade bait, or all of the above.