For the most part, catchers have been raised with tender reverence in the Phillies' farm system. They are drafted young and threaded through the system before using their ancient backstop training for long Phillies careers. Outside of Benito Santiago's 1996 insertion, the Phillies can be separated into three distinct modern eras behind the plate:
- 1988-1995: Darren Daulton
- 1997-2006: Mike Lieberthal*
- 2007-present: Carlos Ruiz
*(In 2006, another transition year, Lieberthal caught only 67 games, with the rest of the time split between Sal Fasano and Chris Coste).
But there were others - the failures, Those of Which we Do Not Speak. Bobby Estalella, despite holding the MLB record for most home runs (48) for a hitter with under 200 hits (195), could only muster .218 in 76 games from 1996-99. He would eventually be named in the Mitchell Report and called to testify against Barry Bonds.
In what had become a grand tradition of Phillies catchers at that point, Johnny Estrada took over behind the plate after a devastating injury to his predecessor (Mike Lieberthal), almost a month before his 25th birthday in 2001. He was downgraded to "part-time" catcher in 2002 while hitting .222 as a Phillie and then was downgraded off the roster entirely and onto the Braves the following season, for whom he would, of course, be an All-Star and win a Silver Slugger.
The Phillies have drafted plenty of catchers in the first round - six straight-up and two as part of compensatory picks - and only one of them, Lierbethal, has gone on to a Phillies career of relative significance. Names like John Stearns (1973), Trey McCall (1985), Henry Powell (1980), and John Russell (1982), are mysteries; and Travis d'Arnaud (2007), once thought to be the chosen one, has turned coat for the Mets.
At this point, there remains no heir apparent waiting in Lehigh Valley, so who do they turn to?
Cameron Rupp was given 60 major league at-bats this past year and hit .183 with 20 strikeouts after getting bumped up out of necessity. Sebastian Valle never panned out. Tommy Joseph was acquired from the Giants for Hunter Pence in a quiet attempt to solve this problem two years ago, but the 22-year-old's history of concussions at one point had a move to first base in the mix.
With a rebuild in action, the team is naturally on the hunt for a young, virile young catcher with young, not-yet chewed-up knees who can take on the role in the foreseeable future. Ruben Amaro's biggest trade chip, Cole Hamels, has had his trade value quibbled over all winter long, with the Phillies demanding multiple top prospects and other teams, you know, not wanting to give them to the Phillies, but still wanting Cole Hamels.
You can't blame the Red Sox for not wanting to give up a strapping, 22-year-old Texan switch-hitter who plays the toughest position on the field. Swihart has been muscling his way up the prospect ladder since 2012, spending years in single A and high A before leaping from double A to triple A in 2014, a time in which he was hitting .293/.341/.469 and nailing down that coveted 73rd slot on the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list. Watch him infuriate Phillippe Aumont with an oddly-placed pop-up that flummoxes Reid Brignac.
There was talk that Swihart, their No. 2 overall prospect, could move to first base to make room for Christian Vazquez - the Red Sox have so many promising catching prospects, you see - and he could probably handle the change, there's just a lack of urgency to do so. Catching is Swihart's natural position, and Vazquez's development is far from complete.
At least the Phillies would never make him go to a Celtics game. They'd just make him eat a cheesesteak, offer no guidance, and then stand pat while people on the internet yelled at him for doing it wrong.
Padres fans seemed about as ready to part with 22-year-old Hedges as Red Sox fans were to hear of any inclusion of Swihart in a Hamels deal.
Hedges, San Diego's 2011 second round draft pick, is the game's best catching prospect (27th overall, per Baseball America), though he offers less in impressive offensive stats than Swihart. As a catcher, he made great strides in 2014 with the Padres' double A club in San Antonio, throwing out almost 40% of base runners and turning 11 double plays. He caught over 100 games in the Texas League sun, and was credited for his skillful handling of the pitching staff, which led the league in strikeouts and ERA. While turning this sort of aspect of a catcher's game into a measurable number remains outside the grasp of statisticians thus far, it's been highly cited in any evaluation of Hedges.
At the plate, Hedges didn't offer much (.251/.311/.382., 21 HR, 81 BB, 209 SO since 2011), but such is his talent as a defensive catcher, he could be a legitimate starting catcher for a major league club starting yesterday. Scouts do not hold back while lavishing praise on Hedges for his skills behind the plate, while gleefully passing over his withering numbers while standing at it. But a catcher can hold a job in MLB not just by knocking in runs, but by preventing runs, which Hedges does with seeming ease.
Contact hitter Alfaro has brought down his strikeout numbers under the Rangers' tutelage, but Rangers GM Jon Daniels did not see him cracking the big club's roster until September. Despite the team's need for a backup with the capacity to take on more playing time, Alfaro remains classified as a year or two away.
Which doesn't exactly subtract from his appeal as a 21-year-old catcher. In 2013, following a stellar performance in the Arizona Fall League, it was written that Alfaro's main issue was that he could stand to gain a few pounds. Otherwise, he was considered among the top five catching prospects in baseball, a position he held into 2014, moving from No. 4 to No. 3.
Based on the differences in agreement over what Cole Hamels is worth this offseason, teams willing to come to the table with Ruben Amaro will vary; already the Red Sox have have gotten up, left, come back, and are now awkwardly lingering in the background to see what happens. But it's no surprise based on the Phillies' history, that when a team comes knocking, Amaro heads straight for the catching prospects to select a new Chosen One, carrying the mark of the catching order on his palm, to defeat Carlos Ruiz in masked combat and awaken the dawn of a new era in Phillies baseball.