Two down years and a series of failed moves have Phillies fans questioning every signing, every trade Ruben Amaro Jr. and his braintrust make. The second-guessing continued Monday morning when the terms of Carlos Ruiz’s new contract became public.
Ruiz, who reportedly left a two-year, $15 million offer from the Rockies on the table earlier in November, re-signed with the Phils for $26 million over three years (see story). For luxury tax purposes, that’s an annual average value of $8.67 million.
The deal also has a fourth-year option, but that shouldn’t be cause for concern -- it’s a club option at $4.5 million, meaning that the Phillies could either walk away from it or pay it if Ruiz is still performing at a high level at age 38.
Ruiz will be 35 in January. There isn’t a strong track record for catchers 35 and older. Since 1965, only two catchers 35 or older have hit at least .290 in 400-plus plate appearances: Jorge Posada and Carlton Fisk. Only Fisk, Posada, Mike Piazza and A.J. Pieryznski had an .800 OPS after that age.
So, yes, it’s easy to knock this as yet another signing of an aging, past-his-prime player. In some regards, that’s what it is. (It does seem each offseason as if Amaro robotically goes about completing his to-do list.)
But it’s also a necessary move by the Phillies, considering the alternatives.
In free agency, Brian McCann is a lefty who will find an enormous payday. Not a fit.
Pierzynski is also a lefty, and is even older than Ruiz. The Phillies liked him as a fall-back plan, but he’s not a true fit either.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is still in his late-20s, but he faded down the stretch for the Red Sox and isn’t as valuable as Ruiz defensively or working with pitchers.
Internally, there’s even less of a selection. Catching was once thought of as the strong suit of the Phillies’ farm system, but that depth has been tested. Tommy Joseph, acquired in the Hunter Pence trade, was concussed in 2013 and took a step back offensively and defensively. Sebastian Valle continues to struggle with plate discipline. Cameron Rupp has shown decent power, but it’s unclear whether he’ll ever be more than a major-league backup.
Still, some are turned off by the deal because of the three-year commitment to Ruiz. But most offseason projections had Ruiz getting a two-year deal worth $18-22 million -- a contract narrowly topping Russell Martin’s two-year, $17 contract from the Pirates last winter.
Even the low side of that two-year projection was more annually than the deal Ruiz ended up signing. For luxury tax purposes, $10-11 million per year is much more of a hamstring than the $8.67 million he’ll make. So the length is longer, but the AAV is shorter.
And it shouldn’t prevent the Phillies from making the mid-rotation and bullpen upgrades necessary this offseason. After their arbitration cases, the Phillies will have about $154 million committed to 20-21 players (assuming Kyle Kendrick is indeed awarded $7.5-9 million by an arbiter). That leaves some wiggle room under the $189 million luxury tax threshold to fill the remaining holes.
The other criticism of the re-signing of Ruiz is that it further stagnates a club on the downward spiral. In some ways, it does. Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are all in their mid-30s. Add in Marlon Byrd and 63 percent of the starting lineup is between the ages of 33-36.
But younger doesn’t always mean better. There would have been a drop-off from Ruiz -- who had a career year in 2012 and a strong second half in 2013 -- to some sort of Rupp/Erik Kratz platoon, or from Ruiz to a less proven commodity like Dioner Navarro. The Phillies would have been a worse team in 2014 without Ruiz, and there would have been a very small chance the catcher they hinged themselves to would become the backstop of the (near) future.
It’s a bit strange that the instant reaction to the Ruiz deal was so negative. It was apparent since July that the Phillies intended to bring him back, and it was apparent since the season ended that the competition for his services would be strong. Two years, $20-22 million would have been OK, but three years, $26 million was too much?
The Phillies needed to go to three years to end the bidding war with Boston, Toronto and Colorado. And at the end of the day, it’s the annual average value that matters most, since that’s what counts toward the luxury tax.