When the news came down prior to the start of the 2013 season that Carlos Ruiz would miss the first 25 games due to a performance enhancing drug-related suspension, the only bright spot of the 2012 campaign joined the rest of his teammates in disappointment, given the fact that his career-year was a farce. Wednesday afternoon, an interesting development took place that could have far-reaching implications on whether Ruiz can impact this Phillies team like he had for the better part of his eight-year career.
Carlos Ruiz has an exemption to allow him to use Adderall in 2014 http://t.co/RTjqNQHsOA
— HardballTalk (@HardballTalk) February 19, 2014
Adderall, when taken not in accordance with the league’s drug policy, is a banned substance in Major League Baseball. Fortunately for Ruiz, when a player goes through the correct measures and the league’s physician staff signs off on him, those affected by ADHD can apply to legally use the medication. While one cannot help but wonder why the Phillies catcher did not take these measures prior to his career year in 2012, that is a moot point in 2014. Ruiz is the unquestioned starting catcher for the Phillies and with the pressure on the pitching staff as high as ever, he will be leaned on once again in both an offensive and defensive capacity.
After spending the better part of his career with the Phillies as an exceptional defensive catcher with whom you’d be content with any sort of offensive production, the past two seasons have shown us the two ends of the spectrum when it comes to ‘Chooch’ at the plate. In 2012, Ruiz led the team with a .325 batting average and posted career highs in extra base hits, home runs (16), and RBI (67). Ruiz was named to his first and only All-Star game and, at 33 years old, looked to finally be rounding out his offensive game.
The news of the suspension made any sort of similar success in 2013 impossible. Ruiz played in only 92 games (his fewest since his rookie season), and saw significant dips in all of his offensive categories. By season’s end, Ruiz was no different from the rest of the Phillies aging core that many doubt as to whether they can produce over the course of a full MLB season.
In November, the Phillies inked Ruiz to a three-year/$26 million contract extension, most likely ensuring he’ll finish his career in Philadelphia. Ruiz turned 35 in January, and joins Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard as everyday core players on the Phillies in their mid-30s. While one would have to think that the Phillies are much more concerned with the offensive production of players like Howard and Utley, Ruiz will need to improve on his dismal 2013 season to help the team try and contend in the NL East.
For Ruiz to bring value to this year’s Phillies team, it is important for him to get back to doing the things he was doing before the two-year stretch that has seen his offensive numbers fluctuate like never before. The team signed Wil Nieves in the offseason as an upgrade for the backup position, and the brunt of the offensive load will most likely come from elsewhere than the bottom of the lineup where Ruiz will most likely reside. Nieves should lighten the load in terms of total games caught for Ruiz, but there is little doubt who the starting catcher is.
The Phillies are at their best when Ruiz is a prolific secondary piece, not a focal point. He is a great defensive catcher that knows how to handle a pitching staff, he is adored by his teammates in the clubhouse, and he is a clutch hitter who, prior to last season, demonstrated admirable gap power for hitting toward the end of the batting order. There were brief stretches toward the second half of the season where Ruiz was doing such, the key for 2014 will be re-establishing the consistency he showed earlier in his career.
One of the reasons Ruiz is so beloved among the city and clubhouse is his emotional connection with the Phillies organization. They plucked him out of Panama in the late 90s for a measly $8,000 and Philadelphia is the only major league team ‘Chooch’ has been a part of. He has had memorable hits, caught memorable games, and will be forever etched in our memories for the embrace shared between him and Brad Lidge upon clinching the 2008 World Series. There are players for every team in nearly every sport who hold extra value with their fans that the national media does not seem to understand. For the Phillies during their run of success over the better part of the last decade, that player is Carlos Ruiz.
In terms of his 2013 season, I believe it was the nature of this role that greatly affected Ruiz’s mental and psychological approach to the game. In 2012, Ruiz went from a fan-favorite role player to the most important hitter in the lineup. He had walk-off home runs, delivered in big situations, and was the main reason for most of the minimal optimism surrounding the 2012 Phillies. No longer was ‘Chooch’ looked at as the pleasant surprise who played good defense. He had just turned in a season that, for his position, could be lumped in with some of the elite players around the majors. With questions surrounding almost every important player on the roster, pre-suspension Ruiz was the only ‘sure thing’ and was looked upon as such.
Temporarily disregarding the mental weight on Ruiz’s shoulders, one cannot forget that he was playing for most likely his last major league contract. On a roster loaded with some of the biggest contracts in baseball, Ruiz had made just $2.75 million in 2011 and his contract was set to expire following the 2013 season. Even prior to his 2012 season, Ruiz was trending toward a significant pay bump. After turning in an elite campaign in the 2012 season, Ruiz must have figured he would be able to work out an extension with the Phillies without ever having to worry about injuries or another dip in production affecting his price tag. Whether or not the organization had plans on levying an extension toward Ruiz before the suspension was handed down was irrelevant. What was relevant was that now Ruiz, an offender of the league’s drug policy, was playing with no security beyond the 2013 season.
Taking into account the factors working against Ruiz in 2013, the fact that he struggled the way he did should come as no surprise. Not only did Ruiz let down the organization and fanbase that he had gone through such a journey with, but he was playing in a season where it was possible that he would never make a higher salary. At the point of his career Ruiz was in, these factors can weigh on a professional athlete more than us non-athletes can fathom.
Entering 2014, Ruiz has no excuses. He is financially set for life, much in thanks to the free-wheeling spending of Ruben Amaro, Jr. and he will have no concerns with taking his league-approved medication. The distractions as to whether Charlie Manuel will be coming back is no longer an excuse and, regardless of how one diagnosis the talent on the roster, the team is almost completely healthy. Ruiz will most likely resume his spot toward the end of the lineup, and will be depended on more for his handling of the team’s pitching staff and bullpen.
There were some indications during last season that Ruiz’s age had started to catch up with him. He was not as strong throwing base-stealers out and didn’t have the same connection with some of his pitchers that we have grown used to. I do not expect Ruiz to replicate his 2012 season, far from it. As a Phillies fan, the hope has to be that Ruiz can find a spot similar to where he was during the ’09-’11 seasons.
Given the fact that there are no substantial factors working against him, I am expecting a noticeable resurgence in Ruiz. He has always been a player that, due to his simple style of play, never seemed to fluctuate or go through many slumps. Ruiz constantly gets contact at the plate and has valuable gap power for the back-end of the lineup. Given his health and the fact that he will be spelled by Nieves, a definitive back-up catcher, Ruiz will have a prime opportunity to excel without pushing himself too hard and threatening his health. If there is one player on the Phillies whose offseason has been seeing more and more good news, it’s Ruiz. As a player who has fed off the emotion of the team, the city, and himself over the course of his career, I expect his 2014 numbers to mirror the sentiment surrounding the catcher as the Phillies head into spring training.
OPTIMISTIC 2014 SEASON PROJECTIONS: 115 games, .270 BA, .380 OBP, 110 hits, 20 doubles, 7-9 home runs, 40-45 RBI, 40 strikeouts