CLEARWATER, Fla. – If Cameron Rupp were a politician, he’d be considered an incumbent with little chance of winning the upcoming election. Some might even argue that the veteran catcher was voted out of office at the end of last season when top prospect Jorge Alfaro came to the big leagues in early August and started 29 of the Phillies’ final 59 games. Rupp started 23 games in that same span and he knows the score as he begins his seventh big-league camp.
“I feel like I’ve always come in with the mind-set of competing for a job,” Rupp said before Thursday’s workout at the Carpenter Complex. “Nothing is guaranteed in this sport. Things happen, times change, the game turns over. I have to compete for a job because if I don’t play well I’m not going to play.”
Rupp, 29, wrestled the starting catching job away from future Phillies Wall of Famer Carlos Ruiz two seasons ago when he hit .252 with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs. The home run total ranked 10th among catchers and the 54 RBIs were 13th. Even though “Chooch” was traded in the middle of the 2016 season, there was no time for Rupp to get comfortable. Former manager Pete Mackanin was sometimes critical of the catcher’s ability to call and run a game from behind the plate and Alfaro, acquired from Texas in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade, arrived in the big leagues for the first time at the end of 2016. Meanwhile, the Phillies were also high on Andrew Knapp, who had risen into the ranks of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects by hitting .360 at double-A Reading in 2015.
Now, here in this spring training, the Phillies have themselves a serious catching competition and general manager Matt Klentak does not mind at all.
“I think we’re always going to fight the urge to anoint someone the starter and somebody else the backup,” Klentak said. “In this ever evolving game, the idea of building depth and complementary rosters is probably going to move in the direction of not having a traditional starter and backup.”
Perhaps that’s true, but if you can place a bet on who will start the most games behind the plate for the Phillies this season, put your money on Alfaro. All the intangibles weigh heavily in the 24-year-old Colombian’s favor, including the fact that he is the only one of the three catchers who is out of options. That means the Phillies can send Rupp or Knapp, 26, to the minor leagues without having them pass through waivers.
“That more than likely means that [Alfaro] is going to get the first crack at being on the major-league club,” Klentak said. “We’ll see how that plays out. That’s why we’re here. We’re going to expose these guys to a lot of different things and we’ll make the best decision for the club.”
It’s highly unlikely that the Phillies will carry three catchers because Klentak made it clear that the team wants to have an eight-man bullpen for the majority of the season. It’s possible that either Rupp or Knapp is traded before the end of spring training.
All three of the Phillies’ catchers have some defensive deficiencies and some serious offensive potential. Rupp might still be considered the favorite to remain the starter if he could have duplicated his 2016 season offensively. Instead, his numbers dipped and Alfaro took advantage of his August/September audition by batting .318 with five home runs and an .874 OPS in 29 games.
“Last year was a roller coaster,” Rupp said. “There were months where I played really well and did some damage and then there were a couple months where it was awful. There is no other way to put it, but that’s part of it.”
Like his predecessor, new manager Gabe Kapler wants his catchers to think about their work behind the plate ahead of their offensive numbers.
“The meat and potatoes for a catcher are blocking, throwing and keeping balls in the zone and getting calls at the edges,” Kapler said. “And then probably game planning would be another strong one for catchers. But then the value at the margins is the relationships that they develop with our pitchers. How much confidence can they inspire in our pitchers?
“Just imagine if you take (Vince) Velasquez and (Nick) Pivetta and (Jerad) Eickhoff and turn up their volume on their confidence level a little bit. There is nothing like feeling 10 feet tall and bulletproof on the mound or at the plate, so if the catcher can make the pitcher feel like that … it’s invaluable.”
Rupp is hoping that the experience he gained over the last five seasons at the big-league level gives him an advantage in that area, but he also knows he is in the midst of a fierce catching competition and there is nothing he can take for granted.