Two years ago this month, a lifelong Phillie hit the free agent market. After testing the open waters, he eventually returned to Philadelphia, as many people had expected.
Despite mutual interest in continuing a similar relationship, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said you shouldn’t make the mistake of comparing the case of Carlos Ruiz to Jimmy Rollins’ free agency in the fall of 2011.
“I can assure you if it takes similar as long (to get something done), there will be very little chance of bringing Chooch back,” Amaro said Thursday regarding Ruiz. “We can’t afford to miss out on other opportunities.”
Ruiz, who turns 35 in January, officially became a free agent on Tuesday. With several teams in need of a catcher this offseason – including deep-pocketed teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Braves – Ruiz is expected to draw considerable interest.
The Denver Post reported that the Colorado Rockies were set to offer Ruiz a multi-year contract this week.
With no in-house candidate ready for everyday catching duties at the major league level, the Phillies would also like Ruiz in their 2014 lineup. But after five full weeks of exclusive negotiating time with Ruiz since the season ended, the Phils were unable to keep him off the open market.
“It happens all the time,” Amaro said of the free agent process. “The player wanted to exercised his right to be a free agent. What our intentions and their intentions are, I hope they remain the same. But they want to explore the market and drive up the price as much as they can. It’s exactly what all free agent players and their agents do, pretty much.”
While Amaro may have been patient with Rollins two years ago, the case of Ruiz may be more similar to another lifelong Phillie who hit the free agent market in 2011: Ryan Madson.
Amaro was aggressive in filling the vacant closer role. Instead of letting the market play out for a while, Amaro negotiated with both Madson and Jonathan Papelbon before signing the latter on Nov. 14, roughly two weeks into the free agent season.
With other free agents catchers on the market, Amaro clearly doesn’t want to “miss out” on one of the better options and be like the kid in musical chairs left standing idly with a dumb look on his face.
“I’m confident we’re going to get a catcher,” Amaro said when asked if he was confident he and Ruiz could reach a deal. “I don’t know who it’s going to be.”
Among the other options on the free agent market include Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Dioner Navarro and John Buck.
McCann, a seven-time All-Star with Atlanta who has averaged over 21 home runs in each of his eight full big league seasons, is expected to be paid handsomely this winter. Since he will likely get a long-term contract, the lefthanded-hitting McCann, who turns 30 in February, is probably a better fit for an American League team that has the option of using him as a designated hitter in the future.
Saltalamacchia, 28, hit .273 with 14 home runs and a career-high .804 OPS in 121 games with Boston this season. His youth and hitting prowess will likely make him the second highest paid free agent catcher this winter after McCann.
Saltalamacchia is not known for his defense, however, and was benched in the final three games of the World Series in favor of backup David Ross. Saltalamacchia is a switch hitter, but has hit .206 with a .599 OPS from the right side in his career.
With a lefthanded-heavy lineup, the Phils could use a righthanded-hitting catcher.
Like McCann, Navarro, turns 30 in February. Like Saltalamacchia, he is a switch hitter.
But Navarro’s career splits are better from the right side. A .215 hitter in 10 seasons, Navarro had career highs in batting average (.300), home runs (13) and OPS (.856) in 89 games with the Cubs in 2013.
Although he’s a righthanded hitter with considerable power, 33-year-old John Buck, a career .234 hitter, is probably more suited to share catching duties. This time last year, top catching prospect Tommy Joseph appeared to be on a path to reach the big leagues in 2014, but concussion issues limited him to 36 games in 2013, so the Phillies do not have a suitable in-house candidate to share the job just yet.
Ruiz, a popular figure in the clubhouse who is lauded for his game-calling ability, would seem to be the ideal fit. Although he struggled to get his bat going after missing most of the season’s first two months while serving a suspension (tied to Adderall use) and sitting on the disabled list (hamstring), Ruiz is a righthanded hitter who has a .295 average and .810 OPS in the last four seasons.
“He’s still a fit,” Amaro said. “It’s must a matter of it takes two to tango. People have to come to agreements to get things done. We’re perusing the landscape of catching right now.”
On Monday, the Philies had the opportunity to gain some sense of certainty in their vacancy at catcher by offering a qualifying offer to Ruiz.
If they offered Ruiz that offer, which amounted to a one-year, $14.1 million deal, the Phillies would have waited a week to see if he’d accept or decline, while also ensuring themsevles a compensatory pick at the top of next year’s draft.
The Phillies declined to make Ruiz a qualifying offer, perhaps because they did not want to be budgeted to pay their catcher $14.1 million in the event he accepted.
“We had our reasons,” Amaro said.
Ruiz made $5 million in 2013, the final year of a four-year deal that paid him $13.35 million. In a market where catching demand outweighs quality free agent supply, Ruiz could be headed for a more lucrative multi-year deal.
Ruiz’s agent, Marc Kligman, did not return a phone call from the Daily News.