2013 Stats: 92 G, 341 PA, .268/.320/.368, .688 OPS, 83 H, 16 2B, 5 HR, 30 RBI, 1 SB, 0.46 BB/K, wRC+ 89, .303 wOBA, .291 BABIP, 1.7 rWAR, 1.4 fWAR
Steamer: 105 G, 431 PA, .269/.337/.403, .740 OPS, wRC+ 116, 71 H, 23 2B, 9 HR, 42 RBI, 2 SB, 0.63 BB/K, wRC+ 104, .324 wOBA, .289 BABIP, 2.6 WAR
Oliver: 143 G, 600 PA, .272/.332/.394, .726 OPS, 103 H, 30 2B, 12 HR, 65 RBI, 2 SB, 0.54 BB/K, wRC+ 100, .319 wOBA, .292 BABIP, 2.9 WAR
From extremely modest beginnings to his baseball career—signed as a middle infielder out of Panama to a four-figure bonus, spending the better part of a decade in the minor leagues before his MLB debut at age 27—Carlos Ruiz has carved a lofty place for himself in Phillies history. He’s been an all-star. He caught a perfect game and a playoff no-hitter. He got the walk-off hit in Game Three of the 2008 World Series. Roy Halladay anthropomorphized a stuffed doll bearing his image in an all-time cute (and just slightly creepy) commercial. He has a lovable nickname derived from a Spanish-language swear word.
Maybe this is just where my mind goes now that "True Detective" has wrapped up, but what might be most interesting about Ruiz as we approach the start of the 2014 season is how he illustrates the tenuousness of narrative in baseball. If you’re an optimist, you might think Chooch is primed for a significant rebound in 2014: he now has an exemption to use Adderall, for which he was suspended to start last season, and his late start to playing serious competitive baseball might mean that his "catcher age" is more like 32 than his chronological 35. If you lean the other way, you probably figure that the 2013 version of Ruiz is what we’re going to see from here on out—yet another Phillie hitting an age-related decline just as he gets pricey. You likely find his defense overrated as well.
Personally I go back and forth between these two positions. I wasn’t thrilled to see yet another mid-30s player inserted into the 2014 mix, but there are some reasons to believe the Phillies made a rational move in bringing him back. On balance, I think of a point TGP alum Matt Swartz has made in different forums: teams tend to know their own free agents better than anyone else. Admittedly, the Phillies seem to regard their championship veterans through glasses so rose-colored they might not let light in… but reportedly the reason the club had to go to three years to secure Ruiz was that the Red Sox were hard after him, and their moves tend to get as much benefit of the doubt from baseball pundits as the Phillies’ generate reflexive scorn. Even Dave Cameron voiced the point that just because Ruben Amaro made this move doesn’t automatically render it a bad idea.
With any older player, usage and rest matters a lot, and this is particularly the case for catchers. Ruiz has averaged a bit under 120 games per season since assuming the starter role seven years ago, and it probably would behoove Ryne Sandberg to keep him in that range in 2014... even with the unpalatable fact of Wil Nieves as the backup. Notwithstanding his overall subpar year, Ruiz had a six-week stretch last season from Aug. 3 through Sept. 14 during which he posted a .353/.405/.560 line over 128 plate appearances; this suggests the tank isn’t quite empty.
The truth is that if you believe the rest of the Phillies roster is strong enough to fuel a run at contention in 2014, Chooch is probably the guy you want behind the plate. The offensive projections above seem reasonable and would represent solid production from the catcher position, and the pitching staff knows and trusts him. The alternatives were outbidding the Yankees for Brian McCann, taking a leap of faith on someone like Dioner Navarro or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, or punting the position to likely backup-at-best Cameron Rupp unless and until Tommy Joseph plays his way into relevance. Of course, his contract runs through 2016, and it's harder to see how he's going to be a great option in that final year at age 37.
Short of a Wheeze Kids II scenario, the best-case with Chooch might be that he plays well enough that they can trade him this summer or next winter, when I suspect an ass other than Ruben Amaro's will sit in the GM chair. (And please, O Base-Ba'al, may he or she be less of an, um, ass.) While Ruiz is a viable option for a veteran team hoping against logic for a last grab at glory, he won't make sense for the full-on gut renovation we might well be looking at a year from now.