When Carlos Ruiz returned to his home in his native Panama this offseason, he did so with a specific goal.
"This year, in the offseason, I prepared a little bit more," the Phillies catcher said, "because I know, the team, we need to win."
Ruiz is one of a number of players who enter the 2012 season unsure of what the future holds. Along with longtime teammates Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels, the 33-year-old catcher will be playing out the final guaranteed year of his contract. While logic suggests that the Phillies will pick up the $5 million option they hold on the catcher's contract for 2013, they do not have that luxury with their starting centerfielder and their 28-year-old lefthander, meaning 2012 could be their last chance to win a championship with some of the most important contributors from the 2008 World Series team.
For Ruiz, that means an increased need to remain healthy, particularly in light of injuries that will sideline Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for an unknown amount of time.
For as integral a role as he fills, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound fan favorite has averaged just 118 games per season since becoming the team's regular catcher in 2007. In other words, the Phillies have played more than a quarter of their games without Ruiz behind the plate.
Manager Charlie Manuel says it is a stretch to expect him to log more than 120 starts in a season, given the beating he endures while calling games. But Ruiz worked hard this offseason to maintain a body that all spring has appeared to be in excellent shape.
"Whatever has been wrong in the past, I try to fix it and come back strong in that area," Ruiz said.
Last year was his healthiest season to date. Ruiz set career highs with 132 games and 472 plate appearances, finishing 2011 hitting .283 with a .371 on-base percentage, .383 slugging percentage, and six home runs. His only stint on the disabled list was a 12-game absence because of lower-back tightness. In 2010, he missed 20 games with a concussion and a handful of others with ankle, shoulder, and knee injuries. In 2009, an abdominal muscle strain sidelined him for 17 games.
While the Phillies like the work that backup Brian Schneider does behind the plate, the 35-year-old veteran has hit just .208/.297/.320 with 60 strikeouts in 286 plate appearances since signing with the team before the 2010 season. Schneider also has endured his share of bumps and bruises, leading to reports this spring that the Phillies were actively seeking more catching depth.
Clearly, the team's best option is to keep their starter healthy, which is why Manuel decided to ease Ruiz into Grapefruit League action this spring. Ruiz's chief concern will continue to be his handling of a Phillies pitching staff that is the leading reason they again enter a season as the team to beat in the National League. More than ever before, though, they will need his ability to make contact and reach base as Utley and Howard work their way back into game shape.
Ruiz is well aware of the situation.
Contact David Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org.