In the midst of handing out money to any player old enough to qualify for social security, Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro completely reshaped the catching market after re-signing Carlos Ruiz. 

It was announced on Monday that the Phillies signed the 34-year-old Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million contract that includes a $4.5 million team option for 2017. 

On the surface, the contract doesn’t seem that bad. Ruiz has played eight years in the big leagues, all with Philadelphia, and posted a strong .274/.358/.412 line. His .358 on-base percentage ranks fourth among catchers with at least 2,500 plate appearances since 2006.

The problems with the deal come when you look at what Ruiz did in his walk year, lack of defensive prowess and the fact that catchers in their mid-30s aren’t likely to hold any value moving forward. 

Coming off a career year in 2012 with a .325/.395/.540 line in 114 games, Ruiz had sky-high expectations for 2013. Unfortunately his start was delayed due to a 25-game suspension following a positive amphetamine test

Once Ruiz returned, he wasn’t nearly the same player. The veteran backstop hit .268/.320/.368 in just 92 games and was worth 1.4 Fangraphs‘ Wins Above Replacement. He also missed a month due to a hamstring injury. 

Add to that Ruiz’s inability to hit right-handed pitching in 2013, with just a .257/.301/.335 line in 230 at-bats, and the Phillies have paid an average of $8.7 million per season for a platoon player who also rated as one of the worst framing catchers in baseball

For perspective, Fangraphs has a stat that calculates value into dollars using wins above replacement to determine what a player would be worth in free agency. Ruiz was worth $7 million in 2013, nearly $2 million less than what the Phillies will pay him per season for the next three years. 

In other words, this is the quintessential Phillies contract, and one that will undoubtedly have several other general managers in the market for catching pulling their hair out. 

This is one of the deepest catching markets we have seen in recent years. Brian McCann is the cream of the crop, but the next-level guys include Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Dioner Navarro stand to benefit greatly because of the Ruiz contract. 

Let’s see how those players compare to Ruiz throughout their careers and in 2013, as well as the age each player will be entering the 2014 season. 

*Age reflects date of birth as of June 30, 2014

All of a sudden Dioner Navarro, who only played in 89 games with the Chicago Cubs last year, can demand a salary in the $7-8 million per season range. He hasn’t been a starter since 2010, but is five years younger than Ruiz and was worth more as a part-time player than Chooch as an everyday player. 

What does it say about a player like McCann, who had his own injury issues early in 2013 recovering from shoulder surgery, that he was able to produce nearly twice as many wins above replacement as Ruiz with just 61 more plate appearances?

One general manager told Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York that McCann could receive a deal in the six-year, $100 million range. That might be on the low end thanks to the Ruiz contract. 

Agents love to follow market trends. When a player like Jayson Werth gets $126 million over seven years, a younger star with a better track record like Carl Crawford can get $142 million over seven years just days later. 

Saltalamacchia could end up being the biggest winner from Ruiz’s deal. He wasn’t given a qualifying offer by the Boston Red Sox after the best year of his career at the age of 28, which could have given other teams pause about making a three- or four-year offer. 

Now, given the market set by the Ruiz deal, Saltalamacchia at, say, $13-15 million per season over three years doesn’t seem like a crazy idea.  

If the Phillies had paid Ruiz one year ago, no one would have paid much attention because he was coming off a great year. It would have been a mistake given his age, but still justifiable in most respects. 

Going by Ruiz’s new average annual salary compared to what every other MLB catcher made in 2013, he is the fifth highest-paid player at the position behind Joe Mauer ($23 million), Yadier Molina ($14.2 million), McCann ($12 million) and Miguel Montero ($10 million). 

It’s also important to remember that this could have an impact on upcoming arbitration-eligible catchers, like Matt Wieters. He’s rated as one of the best defensive catchers and has hit at least 22 home runs the last three years. 

Do you think there is an agent out there who can’t argue Wieters is better than Ruiz? (For the record, Scott Boras represents Wieters.)

The Orioles, according to Steve Melewski of MASN Sports, are exploring the idea of trading Wieters to create payroll flexibility. Ruiz’s new contract might allow Baltimore to ask for more in a potential deal because Wieters‘ value relative to his age and being under team control for two years makes him a desirable option. 

Instead of just one catcher making more than $10 million per season (McCann) with a new contract this offseason, it’s possible we could see as many as three (Saltalamacchia, Navarro) reach that plateau. 

I don’t think we will see deals for catchers get out of control the way we did the outfield market with Werth and Crawford three years ago, but it has definitely changed thanks to Ruben Amaro‘s insistence on overpaying every aging free agent he possibly can. 


Note: All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

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