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.