Ruben Amaro Jr.'s public comments over the last few days should concern you as a Phillies fan because they suggest that the Phillies are at the mercy of a market that they have shown little evidence of mastering over the last three to four offseasons. In an interview with the Daily News' Ryan Lawrence yesterday, Amaro said that the Phillies will not wait around for free agent catcher Carlos Ruiz to make a decision. In an interview with Phillies.com's Todd Zolecki, he said, "Well, we're fortunate now that [the free-agent market has] kind of opened up," Amaro said. "There are several candidates that could be our catcher next year. We'll see what happens. I mean, we're in the open season."
Both comments suggest either a negotiatior who is flailing blindly for any little crag of high ground or one who is ready and willing to overpay at the top of the market. Most of all, they suggest that the Phillies entered the offseason thinking they would be in the drivers seat in their search for a regular catcher, a notion that is a laughable combination of silly and absurd. Premium positions are known as such for a reason: if you allow yourself to reach free agency needing a player at one of them, you'd better be prepared to pay a premium, because the demand for such players far outweighs the available supply. Right now, we know that the Rockies and the Red Sox are preparing offers for Ruiz. We know that the Phillies view him as their top candidate behind the plate. We also know that the Yankees are in dire need of a catcher. Also, the Blue Jays had some of the worst production in the majors behind the plate, not to mention plenty of disappointment on the mound. The Rangers are a team that has been rumored to be considering a play for Brian McCann. Either way, they have a need behind the plate with A.J. Pierzynski now a free agent.
Count 'em up: That's three teams (Rockies, Red Sox, Yankees), who, in addition to the Phillies, are definite players on the catching market. Plus two more who could enter the fray. And those are just the teams who have made their intentions known or semi-known. The White Sox finished with the second-lowest OPS out of their catchers in the majors, the Mariners the third-lowest, the Reds the sixth-lowest. All of those teams harbor annual intentions of contending, and all have showed a willingness to spend dollars on the free agent market.
Thing is, there are only really four everyday catchers with proven offensive track records on the market: McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski and Ruiz. Which means somebody is going to have to settle for that next tier of everyday catchers, which includes John Buck, Kurt Suzuki, and a big wild card in Dioner Navarro.
Buck and Suzuki are classic final options, which means Amaro likely isn't referring to them when he talks about pursuing other options behind the plate. McCann does not fit with the Phillies for a variety of reasons, most of all because he would give them another middle-of-the-order bat succeptible to left-handed pitching to go with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Domonic Brown. McCann is headed for an American League team, because he is worth more to an AL team, because he can DH on days that he is not catching. I just don't see a way that an NL team can justify paying him as much as an AL team can. Besides, if the Phillies had any interest in McCann, McCann's agent would make sure the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers knew about it. And, thus, we would know about it.
So the only guys he could really be referring to are Saltalamacchia, Pierzynski or Navarro. I'm not sure that Saltalamacchia makes sense, because Amaro says that the catching market has "opened up," and from the Phillies perspective the Red Sox decision not to make a qualifying offer to the soon-to-be 29-year-old would seem to have closed it up a bit, since teams now won't have to worry about forfeiting a first round draft pick in order to sign him. I guess you can look at that as opening up the market since Catcher Buyers might now consider themselves to have one more option, but my intuition says that it actually limits the Phillies' buying power, since they would have been one of only 12 teams who would not have had to forfeit a first round draft pick for Saltalamacchia (the top 11, plus the Red Sox), which also serves to decrease their leverage with Ruiz. The real effect, I would imagine, is that it increases demand for Saltalamacchia more than it increases the overall supply of catchers. Plus, Saltalamacchia is the kind of player who could convince more buyers to enter the marketplace, since young, offensive catchers like him are not often available via free agency.
Regardless, Saltalamacchia and Ruiz are two different players. It is worth considering that the Red Sox opted against offering Saltalamacchia arbitration for fear he would accept, and that they kept him on the bench for all but two of their World Series games against the Cardinals. The Red Sox seem to want a more well-rounded catcher who has a good reputation of handling a pitching staff. Given all of the accolades the Phillies have dished out to Ruiz and their stated desire to become a team that wins via pitching and defense and their steadfast belief in things like "chemistry" and "energy," they would seem to be targeting a catcher similar to the one the Red Sox are targeting, which is why the Phillies are targeting Ruiz. The Red Sox showed last year that they weren't afraid to sign a premium position player coming off a down offensive year. Many snickered when they gave Shane Victorino three years and $39 million. Well, after one year it seems like a decent deal.
The overall point is that the catchers are the ones who are in the drivers seat right now, and it is Amaro and Co. who will need to give one of them -- Ruiz, presumably -- a reason not to wait around.