Analysis: If Not Carlos Ruiz For $26M Over 3 Years, Dioner Navarro For $5M/1
Evaluating baseball transactions often becomes a game of sizing up each of a number of not so attractive options.
So, just like we did after the Marlon Byrd signing, let's play the same game in the wake of Carlos Ruiz's reported three-year deal worth $26 million with the Phillies.
If not for Ruiz -- 34, who's coming off his worst year offensively and a 25-game ban for failing an amphetamine test the year prior, the only time his bat ever even sniffed All-Star status -- the Phillies would have had to settle for any one of a number of flawed alternatives.
First and most obvious would be former Braves backstop Brian McCann, 32, who's likely to command around $80 million over five years in free agency. While history tells us that 35-year-old catchers aren't likely to fare all that well, it also doesn't speak too highly of 33-year-olds like the guy McCann will be next year. Over the last 23 seasons, there have been only 23 seasons by a catcher that old worth at least 3.0 wins above replacement (WAR), or one each year. Together, Carlton Fisk and Jorge Posada had nine. So given the rarity that's been getting above-average player production from a player like McCann (where 2.0 WAR is considered "average"), giving him a half-decade of $16 million a year probably isn't advisable. Especially since McCann hasn't had such a season since 2011 and has a lengthy injury history that includes 30 missed games in 2013 following throwing shoulder surgery.
Oh, and that Ruiz's .320 OBP last year, his worst offensively, was still only .016 behind McCann's.
Next would be free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 29, who after a few brutal seasons at the plate in Boston put together a solid .273/.338/.466 line with 14 home runs and 65 RBI in 121 games last year. Not bad, until you consider that his .372 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), often a measure of hitting luck, would've ranked fourth in MLB had it qualified and was significantly over his career average -- meaning that Salty's numbers were overwhelmingly likely to come back down to earth, and fast. And that Saltalamacchia, not exactly known for his defense, will probably get $30 million over three years. In other words: potentially disastrous.
Then there's Dioner Navarro, 29, who after nine years and five teams prior finally broke through with a reputable offensive showing last year, posting a .300 average and .857 OPS with 13 homers and 34 RBI in 89 games with the Cubs. While he's a switch-hitter and good on-base guy, Navarro has been mostly a part-time player and only rarely offensively viable. He's played 115 games just three times in his career, all between 2007 and 2009, and had an OBP under .290 in two of them. Tough to justify making him a full-time guy for a multi-year period.
But that's the thing: for all those reasons, Navarro would have probably only pulled one year in a free agent contract -- maybe two, considering Phillies GM Ruben Amaro would be the guy drafting it. Even then, even at $5 or 6 million per year, Navarro offered much more upside than Ruiz for $2.5 million fewer in average annual value. Sure, there's bust potential with Navarro. But the hope has to be that within the next few years, any one of Cameron Rupp, Logan Moore or Andrew Knapp are big league ready anyway. (Sebastian Valle and Tommy Joseph, who was the Phillies haul in the Hunter Pence trade two seasons ago, are only barely even considered prospects anymore.)
Because that's the plan for life after Ruiz, right?
Re-signing Ruiz seems like a decision centered mostly on (a) Erik Kratz's struggles last year during the 25 games Ruiz missed, (b) Amaro's aversion to relying heavily on unproven players (thank you, Stutes and Bastardo in 2012), (c) Amaro's fondness of "keeping it in the family, seeing as Ruiz makes for the sixth player from the Phillies 2008 World Championship roster Amaro has since re-signed, and (d) the absence of a slam-dunk alternative.
And fortunately for fans, the fact that Ruiz's game is (was?) built on plate patience and not power should help cushion against his likely decline until he's 38 years old and no longer under contract.
But even then, Ruiz seemed to change his approach at the plate in 2012, swinging much more freely and taking far fewer pitches, as his walk rate tumbled in each of the last two years from 11.7% between 2008 and 2011 to under 5.5% last year. And no level of familiarity with the Phillies pitching staff or ability to frame pitches -- at this point, the proverbial powder and lipstick -- can make $8.5 million per year for three decline years an equitable deal.