Phillies Re-Sign Carlos Ruiz. Don’t Mock Just Yet.

Heading into the winter, it wasn’t entirely clear what the market for Carlos Ruiz was going to look like. He’s headed into his age-35 season, coming off his worst offensive year since 2008, and served a 25 game suspension for failing a drug test (for using amphetamines, specifically Adderall) last year. However, Ruiz proved to be a popular early market target for many teams, and after a week or two of a mini-bidding war, the Phillies have re-signed Ruiz to a three year, $26 million contract, a bit more than the FanGraphs Crowd’s 2/$17M forecast.

Because the Phillies have a long history of overpaying for aging players, the easy narrative is that Ruben Amaro strikes again. He just guaranteed Ruiz $8.5 million for his age-37 season, and the list of catchers who have been productive at that point in their careers is very small indeed. This deal, like almost every other contract signed by the Phillies in recent years, is unlikely to end well.

However, I will continue to point out that we should not evaluate a free agent contract by how it looks in the last year of the contract. Free agents on multi-year deals often take less money in AAV than they are worth for the beginning of the contract in exchange for being overpaid at the back end. This is entirely normal, and nearly every free agent contract is going to work the same way: value up front, albatross at the end. We cannot simply state that the Ruiz signing is a poor one for the Phillies because Ruiz will be overpaid at the end of the deal.

And while Ruiz is an aging catcher coming off a poor season, I think it would be useful to keep the lessons of Russell Martin in mind when talking about this deal for Ruiz, and perhaps hold off on the easy shots at Amaro for re-signing yet another old guy, since this old guy might still be a good player.

A year ago, the Yankees basically told Russell Martin to go away. They refused to offer him even a two year contract at this same salary range, and he eventually signed with the Pirates for $17 million over two years, a deal that was roundly criticized by many as a waste of money for an aging catcher whose offensive skills were in serious decline. Martin, however, was a revelation for the Pirates, combining league average offense with elite defense, providing a huge upgrade behind the plate and helping Pittsburgh win one of the two NL Wild Card spots. In retrospect, $8.5 million per year for Martin on a two year commitment was perhaps the very best free agent value any team signed last winter.

Ruiz is significantly older than Russell Martin was a year ago, but the skillsets are actually pretty similar. For his career, Ruiz has a 105 wRC+, and Steamer projects him for a 109 wRC+ in 2014, thanks to his monster 2012 season still holding a decent amount of predictive weight. He’s also considered an above average defensive catcher, though probably not quite as good as Martin if you include the pitch framing estimates. Over the short term, Ruiz projects for a little more offense and a little less defense than Martin, but the overall package is roughly about as valuable. For comparison, Steamer projects Martin as a +3.1 WAR player in 2014, while Ruiz checks in at +3.0.

You don’t have to think Steamer is the absolute gospel truth to see Ruiz as an above average Major League catcher right now. If you were trying to win in 2014, the list of catchers you might prefer would include Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Brian McCann, Salvador Perez, Miguel Montero, A.J. Ellis, and perhaps Jason Castro. After those seven, you’ve got a big group of guys that include Matt Wieters, Carlos Santana, Jonathan Lucroy, Alex Avila, and Wilson Ramos, along with Martin and Ruiz. I’d suggest that those 15 are probably the top half of Major League catchers in baseball right now, in some order. You could make a case for Ruiz as high as 10 or as low as 15, probably, but he’s clearly in the mix of solid regulars who are better than what most teams have at the position.

Even if you think Ruiz is more of a +2 WAR player than a +3 WAR player, 3/26 for an average regular is still not a deal worth making fun of. That’s what Jeremy Guthrie and Cody Ross got last winter. If we think the price of a win is probably going to be around $6 million this winter, then the Phillies are paying for roughly +4 WAR over the next three years. Even if you apply the most aggressively negative 2014 projection to Ruiz you could reasonably defend — I’d say +2 WAR would be that floor — then you’d still come out with about a +4 WAR projection over the life of the three years even with regression for aging built in. If you start Ruiz closer to the +3 WAR that Steamer projects, then you’re looking at something like +6 WAR over the next three years, or about $4.5 million per win.

Perhaps if Ruiz had a reputation as a terrible defender, or the pitch framing estimates suggested that he was hurting his team in ways that we aren’t currently capturing with the projections, there could be an argument that this is some kind of ridiculous overpay. But the evidence at hand simply doesn’t support that reaction, just like it didn’t support that reaction with Russell Martin last year. Catchers who hit a little bit and hold their own behind the plate are very valuable, and $8.5 million per year just isn’t that much money for a good every day player anymore.

The Phillies are trying to win in 2014, whether you think that they should be or not. Carlos Ruiz is a good player who will help them win more games next year than they would if they had let him go, and they almost certainly could not have replaced his production with the $26 million they spent to keep him. It’s one thing to argue that the Phillies should be rebuilding, but that ship has long since sailed, so given that they are in win-now mode, they should not be criticized for making good moves that help them win at reasonable prices. To think this is an unreasonable price, you have to think that Ruiz is far less than what both his track record and the projections suggest. I don’t know why we should think that.

Just as we shouldn’t buy into the narratives pitched by Wins and RBIs, we shouldn’t buy into the narrative that every deal signed by Ruben Amaro is a bad one, or that every contract for a catcher on the wrong side of 30 is a mistake. There’s nothing wrong with 3/26 for Carlos Ruiz. He’s a good player. He has some risks, sure, and he might age poorly, but for 3/26, the Phillies aren’t paying him like he’s a risk-free superstar. At this price, they just need him to be average for the next couple of years. That’s a very reasonable expectation.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


73 Responses to “Phillies Re-Sign Carlos Ruiz. Don’t Mock Just Yet.”

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  1. ralph says:

    It’d be fun to see you and Keith Law debate this. Needless to say, he is heavily against this signing.

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  2. robertobeers says:

    Three years gives the Phillies a longer leash on Tommy Joseph as well.

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    • Brian says:

      There’s a real chance that Tommy Joseph isn’t a catcher anymore due to health concerns.

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      • hk says:

        He’s catching in winter ball. One has to think that the doctors were as cautious as possible before allowing him to go back behind the dish. Obviously, the doctors’ clearance is no guarantee that his symptoms won’t return, but it is a good sign nonetheless.

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  3. ralph says:

    Also, Jayson Stark reports there is a $4.5M option for a fourth year, with a $500K buyout, which could be a nice bonus for the Phillies.

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    • dovif says:

      C that plays well in their age 39 season? There are not many

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      • nada says:

        Since 1990, only one catcher has produced more than .5 WAR in their age 39 season, and that’s Henry Blanco with 1.1 WAR. The median outcome is 0.1 WAR. I would be shocked if that option gets picked up.

        I think people don’t realize how poorly Cs age, especially past 35. See Nate Silver’s awesome study:
        http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?%20articleid=4464

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        • Barney Coolio says:

          Ok, but Ruiz’s deal actually covers his age 35-37 seasons with an option for his age 38 season. Not 39. It might seem like I am nitpicking, but when you get that old, one year actually does make a lot of difference.

          I looked up these 38 year olds: Benito Santiago (1.5) and Jorge Posada (1.4)WAR, Greg Zaun (1.2), Tom Lampkin (1.0), Ivan Rodriguez (0.5) from fangraphs.

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        • nada says:

          as below, I messed up the ages.
          Yes, there are age 38 catchers who did alright.
          The median outcome is still ~0 WAR (.2).

          5/27 catchers did better than 1 WAR, which is about what you’d want for the option to be worth it.

          Ultimately, I’d bet he isn’t worth the option. He isn’t in the same class as Pudge or Posada, but maybe he gets lucky enough to get 1 WAR. But we’ll find out soon enough.

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  4. tz says:

    Context is very important. For the Phillie, the two most important items on context are:

    - They still view themselves as being in the window to win right now, and
    - The current “replacement” level alternative for a starting catcher is not all that enticing for a team trying to win right now.

    So while the deal has its obvious risks, it’s reasonable in light of the Phillies’ strategy.

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    • If I think I’m going to win the lottery, a million dollar mortgage is a great idea. I’m not going to win the lottery though.

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      • Rob says:

        If you were going to win the lottery, why would you need a loan?

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        • Francine says:

          To buy a million dollar’s worth of lottery tickets.

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        • Fair point. Basically the phillies don’t have a window, so the argument of “they think they still have a window and this decision matches that strategy so it’s a good idea” doesn’t make sense. Maybe I took out a mortgage so I had more current cash that I was investing?

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    • dovif says:

      Except the strategy is based on delusion. The Lineup is full of holes with too much reliance on an untradable Howard and a aging and injury prone Utley. adding more aging players on their decline is not going to make this a .500 team, which it was not last year

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  5. Brandon Firstname says:

    Martin’s a plus pitch framer while Ruiz is pretty average, but I do agree that this isn’t a terrible deal for the Phillies. 3/26 for a league average (and probably even better than that at the start of the contract) catcher isn’t bad, even if he is getting old.

    Plus it’ll help them attain their goal of becoming the oldest team in the history of sports.

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  6. Chris R says:

    Well summed up in your last graf. There’s always the supposition that Amaro could have done better (he wouldn’t offer an extension in-season, but then wouldn’t shut up about his impatience to make a deal in the off season?), but this deal will look good if/when Saltalamacchia signs for 3 years at a higher AAV.

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  7. nada says:

    “It’s one thing to argue that the Phillies should be rebuilding, but that ship has long since sailed, so given that they are in win-now mode, they should not be criticized for making good moves that help them win at reasonable prices.”

    I disagree completely. That’s like saying: conditional on you having decided to shoot yourself in the foot, you should go ahead and buy a cannon to do it with.

    In other words, RAJ has made the wrong decision on rebuilding; every subsequent decision he makes that punishes future success for present production is only making that initial decision worse. I get the idea that it kind of becomes boring and trite to write 15 offseason articles saying “RAJ, what a dumb idiot”, but that does seem to be the way this Phillies offseason is unfolding.

    But with all of that said, this doesn’t seem to be most cringe-inducing contract RAJ has signed, and it probably won’t be the worst contract he does this offseason. So, referring to my above analogy, RAJ upgraded his ability to shoot the Phillies in the foot, but only a little, and at this point, it probably doesn’t matter cause the Phillies are screwed no matter what. And maybe just maybe Ruiz will come back with another crazy ridiculous season and give the Phillies fans something worth watching as the rest of the team implodes.

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    • tylersnotes says:

      i fail to see how this decision punishes future success. If it’s the concern that they have an older catcher in 2 years for too much money, well, it’s not actually that much money and it’s not like there were better options available if they let chooch walk. maybe in 3 years saltalamacchia or brian mccann will seem like a good deal, or maybe in 3 years the phillies will be regularly beat up by the mets and their hot young catcher acquired via trade, but unless a better catcher is acquired by a similar team via trade later this week, this deal does seem entirely reasonable.

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      • nada says:

        I guess it depends on how you project the effects of age on his WAR.

        The most likely scenario over the contract is about 5.5 total WAR, the average amount generated ages 34-37 for catchers in the last 10 years. Breaking it down further, nearly ALL of that WAR was accumulated in the age 34-35 seasons. After that, catchers became DHs, and a league average bat on a team without a DH isn’t perhaps that great. So my personal guess as to his value in the last year of that contract is ~0 WAR, based on past performance of catchers that old, in which case they are punishing future success.

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        • Barney Coolio says:

          Sure, but Ruiz’s contract is for ages 35-37 with an option for his age 38 season. Not 34-37. That should affect your findings.

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        • nada says:

          yes, it should and does. (I got confused about the ages, my bad). But not in a positive way–if anything, it makes Ruiz’s outlook worse. More of his contract therefore goes in the seasons in which catchers don’t really accumulate much, if any, WAR anymore. Was that your point?

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        • Barney Coolio says:

          Oh, I didn’t realize that you were the same person as above. It’s weird that above you thought the contract went through 39, and here you thought it went through age 37. Yeah, I knew that the corrected age range would make Ruiz’s outlook look even worse. I just wanted correct info.

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        • nada says:

          yes–someone upthread mentioned age 39 and I thought ‘Oh, I must have been mistaken’; turns out I was, twice. But pretty much however you slice the age-WAR figures, it doesn’t look especially good for the contract, in my humble (and mistake-prone) opinion.

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      • dovif says:

        This trade ensure there are more money tied up in aging veterans, which makes it harder to start the process of rebuilding, unless you can trade the veteran for prospect and the contract being 3 years long plus a buyout, prohibit that.

        It also stop the Philly from trying to get younger via FA or trade

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    • Phillies Fan says:

      Upovote because I love ripping on RAJ

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    • jmarsh says:

      I think what he’s saying is he’s pot committed now, so must go this course. To extend the poker analogy, putting $100 into a $1,000 pot on an inside straight draw is a bad idea. Putting $100 into a $15,000 pot on the same draw is a good value play. Amaro should have never been in the hand to begin with, but after all the other decisions he’s made, this course of action isn’t a bad idea.

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  8. Tom says:

    Z’s point on chat was not whether the deal was good or bad on dollars/time; but that that left question marks on where Phillies would upgrade now that C was filled.

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    • Howard Eskin says:

      Jose Bautista obviously

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    • JayT says:

      But was there really a way to improve at catcher over Ruiz? Over the last three years Ruiz has had a better war than McCann, and over the last five McCann is only a win ahead. Yes, McCann is younger so he has a better chance of maintaining his current production, but he’s also going to cost upwards of $10 million more per season. Seeing as though the Phillies, thanks to their roster makeup, really have to be looking at the next two years and not any further than that, I think that I’d rather have Ruiz plus $10 million to spend on something else than McCann.

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      • Isn’t almost all of that based on Ruiz’s monster year? Which most people don’t seem to believe in.

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        • JayT says:

          A lot of it is, sure. However, it’s not like he’s been terrible outside of his huge year. Here’s Ruiz’ last five years:
          2.4
          4.1
          2.9
          5.2
          1.4

          It wouldn’t surprise me at all if McCann was worth at least a win more than Ruiz next year, but I think you could spend the extra $10 million McCann would take and get more than enough other pieces to fill the void, and then some.

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        • nada says:

          Sometimes I wish we had luck-subtracted position player WAR (as we sort of do for pitchers with FIP-based WAR).

          For instance, the two years Ruiz had WARs about 4–his 2010 and 2012 seasons–his BABIP was above .330. That’s not entirely unsustainable if he hit line drives a lot (which he did), but it is completely far away from his other years’ BABIP numbers (his career average, even including those numbers, is only .294). And he’s slow, and only going to get slower.

          On top of that, his HR/FB% was 15.1%! Or fully TWICE his average of 7.4%.

          In light of those facts, I don’t believe his crazy, 151 wRC+ year is repeatable..

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  9. Joebrady says:

    This will be my first agreement with Dave in a while. I’m a fan of Ruiz, and as a RS fan, I thought he was worth about $16M/2. Inflation seems a bit high, so maybe my first estimate has to be increased to $17M/2. I’d expect him to be overpaid by $4M in his 3rd season, so that makes the overall overpay about $1M per, about the same as the RS did last year. At least not terrible, and a fraction of the overpay for Howard.

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  10. Sour Bob says:

    Ruiz and Byrd are going to lead the Phils’ youth movement.

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  11. Mr Punch says:

    “If you were trying to win in 2014, the list of catchers you might prefer” could well include a guy who actually won in 2013.

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    • Terrible Ted says:

      David Ross?

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      • pft says:

        Ross is a good guy if you don’t mind losing your catcher for 1/2 season with concussions. He has had his bell rung too many times to be dependable over a full season as a starter

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      • Mr Punch says:

        Ruiz’s contract is going to make Saltalamacchia a lot of money.

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    • pft says:

      Salty was much better defensively and in handling pitchers last year, and managed to stay strong offensively for the entire year. His best side is as LHB’er and Fenway does not do him any favors there.

      He is still young enough that improvement in pitch calling and framing is to be expected. I think SB/CS % are overrated and much depends on the pitchers and the teams philosophy on the importance of shutting down the running game, something the Red Sox have not cared much about over the years. Salty can probably be had for 4/40.

      Ruiz is good and I can see the Phillies wanting to avoid disrupting the pitching and going with the same C, but Salty should be on the list of C teams should go after if they need a C.

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  12. Will says:

    I don’t agree that Martin last year for a two-year deal and Ruiz this for three-years are at all comps. Ruiz suddenly became a hitter at age 30? And had his monster season at 33? That, um, was capped by an amphetamine bust, and then, er, a huge decline the season following (at age 34)? Martin was for his 30-31 seasons after showing a substantive track record; Ruiz’s is for age 35-37 following a weirdly late breakout followed by a suspension and a deep drop. I see it as very likely that he is nowhere near a top-15 catcher for the bulk of this contract.

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    • pft says:

      Good point. I mean, how do you overlook a PED bust and its subsequent impact on performance.

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      • hk says:

        The PED was adderall for which he now has MLB approval. Therefore, if you attribute his success to the adderall usage, you should expect the success to continue with the appropriate age-based decline factored in, of course.

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  13. anonynous says:

    This contract doesn’t take into account that Chooch will be reluctant to return to PEDs now that he’s been busted.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      He got busted for using Adderall. Like many other players, he’s now provided MLB with a medically supported diagnosis that allowed him to get a waiver to take Adderall, so it is no longer a banned substance for him.

      If you think Adderall is what made Ruiz awesome, then you should expect him to continue to be awesome, because he can keep taking it and not get suspended.

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      • DD says:

        Please forward this via inter-office mail, Attn: Keith Law

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        • ImKeithHernandez says:

          I think Keith was mostly referring to Ruiz’s PED use as a sign that other teams would probably not spend as much on him, similar to how other free agent PED users have been treated. Not necessarily as a sign that, without them, Ruiz will under perform. GMs should take advantage of the PED stigma if they still can, but Amaro has now given market value or more to two players previously suspended for PEDs.

          There’s also always the risk of a second strike — even if it wouldn’t be from Adderall.

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      • Terrible Ted says:

        Seems fair…

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      • Dan says:

        This is only semi-related–why do players manage to get busted for adderall? If you need it, get the therapeutic use exemption. Is that exemption somehow hard to get? It just makes no sense to me.

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      • anonynous says:

        Oh please. This guy was on all kinds of PEDs. The only reason his name didn’t come out in the Biogenesis docs was he agreed to 25 games when MLB was still feeling generous.

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  14. Preston says:

    Did anyone criticize the Martin deal, it seemed like a steal at the time to me. The only questions I remember hearing was whether or not it was a worthwhile move given the Pirates expected position on the win curve (an argument that also looks silly in hindsight).

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  15. Paul Wilson says:

    Is it possible to quantify the value of a catcher returning to their previous team vs. signing elsewhere? Calling games for a familiar pitching staff and working with the same manager are a positive.

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    • With all the pitcher/coach turnover that you also must consider plus all the in house knowledge and video work teams to, I’d guess that benefit is very minuscule.

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      • Chris R says:

        I disagree, at least in the particular case of Ruiz and the Phillies. Rich Dubee is outta here and will likely be replaced by an external hire. Ruiz provides continuity and a trusted, simpatico batterymate for Lee and Hamels.

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        • Are Lee and Hamels the type of guys who need a good game called though? I think the game calling is overrated. All teams gameplay and have entire staffs dedicated to how to pitch guys. The catcher is just the one we see.

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  16. FeslenR says:

    I don’t see this as a bad deal really, if it was 3-4 years…

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  17. AndyS says:

    “The Phillies are trying to win in 2014, whether you think that they should be or not. ”

    Uh, that’s the entire point of why this is a terrible move.

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  18. BMarkham says:

    It’s not a bad deal, as the article mentions there just aren’t very many good players at premium positions. The Cardinals are going through this now with the SS shortage. Ruiz is a league average hitter which makes him an above average hitter among catchers. And he provides at least average defense at that premium position. A lot of teams have catchers that are a drain on a team’s offense. The Phillies are one of the teams that don’t, and they want to continue that. He doesn’t project to be that good but was signed for a reasonable sum that he could earn in terms of WAR.

    What makes the deal bad though is the Phillies are not a playoff team next year. They had 73 wins this year and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd order win totals of 65.9, 65.4, and 67.3. So basically they need to add 20+ wins to have a chance at the playoffs, and they’re not going to do that. Not selling off harder in 2013 and continuing this delusion that they are still a competitive team is a joke, and it’s only going to make it harder to rebuild later.

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  19. derekcarstairs says:

    In terms of AAV, the Phils would have been better off giving Ruiz a two-year deal at $10 million per with a player option of $2 million for Year 3. The AAV would be $7.33 million since the player option is treated as a guaranteed year even if the option is likely to be declined.

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  20. Dave says:

    Cole Hamels had a much better FIP/xFIP second half 2013 — small sample size, or his catcher back from suspension?
    Also the contract has a pretty limited no trade, so when they are out of it in July he can be moved even with the back end, it’s not like Ryan Howard money.

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