Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies’ Catching Conundrum
For years, the Philadelphia Phillies have had sustained excellence at the catcher position. In baseball, when stability like that exists, you cherish it, build around it and make room for it. The Phillies did just that with the likes of Darren Daulton, Mike Lieberthal and Carlos Ruiz for over two decades.
As a result, catching prospect after catching prospect was jettisoned out of town in trades because they developed major league talent, provided the team with value and were blocked. Names like Bobby Estalella, Johnny Estrada, Jason Jaramillo, Lou Marson and Travis d’Arnaud were all shipped away to fill other needs.
Lieberthal had the fortune of being a top draft pick and the obvious successor to Daulton. Ruiz, on the other hand, was an undrafted teen out of Panama who worked his way onto the major league roster as a backup before taking over for Lieberthal when he departed. Maybe not seamless, but the transition between catching icons over the past 20 years has been on the smoother side compared to other positions (cough cough, third base, cough cough).
Which brings us to today. The Phillies, as evidenced by previous articles, are on the precipice of being forced to rebuild their team due to performance drop-off. Two years ago, when GM Ruben Amaro Jr. traded away Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino at the trading deadline, the beginning of what should have been an exodus of past-their-prime players, one of the pieces received in return was top catching prospect Tommy Joseph.
Joseph promptly became the Phillies’ top catching prospect over Sebastian Valle and Cameron Rupp, entered Triple-A at the age of 21 and assumed the position as the presumptive top candidate to replace Carlos Ruiz after his contract was up following the 2013 season.
What followed the 2013 season, however, was the highly questionable resigning of Carlos Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million contract. Was the contract a result of skepticism over Joseph’s future due to a concussive past? Was the contract a lack of confidence in the breakout performance of Cameron Rupp?
Both possible and probably likely, but that is not the question here. Carlos Ruiz, along with Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins and even Chase Utley are being paid for their past performances and are stunting the chances for young prospects to show what they have.
Similar to the bullpen, where a plethora of young hurlers are eager to perform on the big stage where precious little real estate exists, the Phillies have thumped a three-year Panamanian road-block in the way of discovering their catcher of the future.
This, of course, speaks to the larger problem with the current construct of this team. The obvious observance is that holding on to the old core (and that is exactly what the Phillies have been doing) is bad for current business. Their production has waned, their record has dropped, ticket sales have declined, the inflated payroll has limited action on the free agent market and fan enthusiasm has plummeted.
What goes unsaid is how the current build of the team has an effect on the future of the team. Unless given a chance to play full-time at the major league level, the Phillies will never know if Joseph or Rupp can be their catcher when the time to decide is forced upon them.
Chooch, after a career year in 2012, had a miserable season in 2013. This seemed to forecast the end of his tenure with the Phillies and provide either Joseph or Rupp the same opportunity that Domonic Brown was afforded in 2013 or Cody Asche will be afforded in 2014 to prove whether they can be part of the Phillies’ future.
Instead, Amaro decided to bank, quite literally, on a return to form from one of the team’s elder statesman; the same exact logic applied to Ryan Howard and Marlon Byrd. This recurring pattern has created instability throughout the organization and leaves the future of the team in the hands of under-evaluated prospects that have a limited pedigree of success.
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