Stretch run key for Phillies to analyze choices
With eye on 2014, club has spots to fill at catcher, third base and outfield
PHILADELPHIA -- Less than 30 minutes before last Wednesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz flashed a quick smile and a thumbs up to a passerby. He had not been traded yet.
In fact, nobody on the Phillies got traded before the Deadline, despite a 50-56 record and a poor start to the second half that essentially guaranteed the Phils will miss the postseason for the second consecutive year. The club has tried to turn its attention to next season as there will be a few important holes to fill before Opening Day 2014.
Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins will be back at first base and shortstop, respectively. Domonic Brown will be in the outfield, either in left or right. Ben Revere is expected to be the everyday center fielder. The Phillies and Chase Utley have been discussing a contract extension, and the fact the Phils refused to trade him before the Deadline despite his value indicates they have a pretty good feeling he will remain in the organization.
If those things hold true, there are three uncertainties in the field: catcher, third base and the other corner outfield position not occupied by Brown.
Cody Asche and Darin Ruf will get good looks the rest of the season at third and left, respectively. This is their opportunity to prove themselves.
"The day we brought them up, we brought them up for a reason," manager Charlie Manuel said Sunday. "We've got to find room to play some of those guys. It doesn't mean Cody or Ruf will play every single day, but they will get the biggest part of the playing time.
"Domonic Brown is going to be in the lineup, too."
Brown is expected to return to the lineup Wednesday after spending the past couple weeks on the concussion disabled list. One wonders if that means the Phillies will make a roster move to make playing time more feasible for Ruf.
The Phils signed Delmon Young to a low-risk deal before the season, because they thought he could provide power in right field for a team they hoped would make the playoffs. But Philadelphia has a tough climb, and there seems to be a logjam in the outfield once Brown returns. Young is hitting just .263 with eight home runs, 31 RBIs and a .708 OPS in 285 plate appearances. If Young had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would rank 18th out of 22 qualifying right fielders in baseball in OPS.
Brown came up through the Minor League system playing right field, so he could move there to keep Ruf in left. If Asche and Ruf can prove themselves offensively, the Phillies might feel confident enough to enter next season with them in the everyday lineup, but what about catcher?
Ruiz is a free agent following the season, but there are several reasons he might be unlikely to return. He turns 35 in January, his offensive production has been dreadful since returning from a 25-game suspension for using a banned stimulant at the beginning of the season and his durability remains an issue. Ruiz has spent time on the disabled list each of the past five seasons.
Ruiz has a .619 OPS, which is the worst mark of his career. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would rank last among all big league catchers in OPS. In fact, Ruiz would be 24 points lower than Toronto's J.P. Arencibia, who is last.
The Phils entered this year hopeful catcher Tommy Joseph, their No. 5 prospect as ranked by MLB.com, would play well enough that they would have an internal option to replace Ruiz. But Joseph suffered a concussion early in the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, suffered a couple setbacks and has been sent home for the rest of the season.
The team's other top catching prospect entering the season, Sebastian Valle, has hit just .210 with a .636 OPS with Double-A Reading. That leaves Lehigh Valley catcher Cameron Rupp with the best chance of being on the 25-man roster at the beginning of next season, but most likely as a backup.
"The injury with Joseph and the inability to come back has been a big blow as far as the position and obviously the depth," Phillies player development director Joe Jordan said. "Any time you take one starter out, it obviously creates other challenges. I think what Rupp has done has neutralized that somewhat. That's a good story. That's a positive for the organization. Last winter when everybody kept asking me about Valle and Joseph, I kept telling them there's a third guy in this conversation."
The good news is Jordan expects Joseph to make a full recovery before Spring Training. In fact, he is hopeful Joseph could be ready to play come winter ball.
It is unlikely the Phils view Erik Kratz as a viable everyday option. He is hitting .226 with eight home runs, 23 RBIs and a .699 OPS. But there are potential free-agent catchers who could help Philadelphia next season, like Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski, John Buck and Dioner Navarro. For all those reasons and more, this could be Ruiz's final couple months with the Phillies.
Of course, in the end, the team's success in 2014 will center largely around Howard, Rollins, Utley, Brown and Revere. They are the ones who are going to have to pace the way offensively for the team to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011. In the meantime, keep a close eye on Asche and Ruf.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.