This three sided Phillie convergence involves the continued
good health of Lieberthal, the emergence of minor league catchers Carlos Ruiz
and Jose Cortez and the excellent debut seasons of '04 draft picks Jason Jaramillo, Louis Marson and Charles Cresswell. Pieced together, they have given
the Phils their best long term backstop outlook in at least a dozen years.
As most Phillie phaithful are painfully aware, the team's
organization wide catching situation has been much like a proverbial black hole
for the past 5-6 years. Oh, Mike Lieberthal has basically been a tower of strength at the big league level, and
the team did once have All-Star Johnny Estrada ready, willing and able to step
in if Lieberthal ever suffered an injury. Yet,
through an unfortunate set of circumstances the team has been painfully short of
catching prospects throughout the organization.
Certainly the team has understood their minor league system
backstop woes and have attempted, mostly without success, to address these
shortcomings. One need only think
back to a young slugger named Bobby Estalella and recall that more than one
Phillie executive thought it would be he and not Lieberthal that would be
handling the pitching staff when the team made its debut at Citizens Bank Park.
Alas, Estalella never fulfilled his potential and was
eventually sent packing to San Francisco. His
journeys through the National League have reconfirmed the Phillies suspicions
that he would never reach the vast potential he displayed as a minor league
power hitter in Reading and Scranton.
In fact, no further proof of the team's lack of backstop
strength is needed than to observe the continued employment of Todd Pratt with
the team. While Pratt's leadership and connection to the 1993 championship
team are exemplary, the fact remains that at his age he has become more a
possible liability than asset. It
will be a major surprise is the 2005 season isn't his swan song as an active
member of the Phillie squad.
This development is no doubt due in large part to the sudden
depth of the catching position throughout the system… the convergence of
forces mentioned above. Let's
examine these seemingly unrelated events that have made the Phil's catching
depth a huge bright spot from top to bottom.
Of course, any discussion on Phillie catchers begins with
Lieberthal, a player long underrated by many Phillie fanatics. Though often
criticized for his pitch calling, and no longer able to handle errant throws
like he did before his knee injuries, he remains a key player in any success the
team may have in '05.
Although his power numbers may continue to drop a bit as he
celebrates birthday number 33 next week, Lieberthal will be counted on to play
at least 120 games this season and next. His
continued good health is a must and will give the team a chance to develop their
solid core of minor league backstops at a normal pace.
His strong right handed bat also helps keep lefties in tow
when facing a team with such strong left-handed bats like Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu
and Chase Utley. He and Pat Burrell
are expected to provide much of the righty power punch for the Phightin's this
season. Expect Lieberthal to hit
anywhere from sixth to eighth this year and hit in the .280 range with 15-20
home runs and 70-80 RBI.
While Lieberthal's good health and solid production were
one part of the sudden convergence, the emergence of Ruiz and Cortez is perhaps
the most surprising aspect of this troika.
Both parlayed solid 2004 campaigns into prospect status within the
organization and appear headed for future major league status.
Of the two, Ruiz is the more advanced, and the more likely to
make an early debut at CBP. In
fact, a solid season at Scranton in '05 could elevate him to a major league
backup role by August of this year. Not
only did he have a strong season at Reading, but continued his progress with an
impressive stint in the tough Arizona Fall League.
His offensive numbers of 17 home runs in merely 349 at bats,
combined with a .284 average were but part of the story.
Even more impressive was his defensive prowess and strong throwing arm,
characteristics sure to endear him to a Phillie pitching staff that always
welcomes strong defense behind the plate.
Ruiz will open the season at Scranton in Triple A where he
will also benefit from the presence of minor league veterans A.J. Hinch and
Michel Hernandez. This trio is
likely to make for as deep a group of catchers as is seen anywhere in minor
league ball. While Hinch and
Hernandez are counted on to make contributions to the Baron cause, it will be
Ruiz who is carefully watched as Lieberthal's future catching partner.
Jose Cortez was drafted in the fourteen round in 2003 and had
a solid sophomore season at Lakewood after a disappointing rookie year.
The switch hitting Cortez hit .291 and showed solid power and good
instincts behind the plate. This former small college All-American is powerfully
built at 6'1" and 220 pounds and is expected to be the starting catcher in
Clearwater this summer.
While Cortez may only rank fifth in the organization's
ranking at this time, it speaks more to the sudden depth of the position than
his lack of potential future major league talent. A catcher with switch hitting ability and a power stroke to
go along with solid defensive instincts is still a highly desired player and
Cortez helped make Lakewood the Phil's most entertaining minor league club
If Lieberthal's health and production, and the emergence of
Ruiz and Cortez made for two thirds of the three part convergence, it was the
stellar amateur draft of 2004 that finalized the story.
When draft gurus Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever convened their meetings
with the team's scouts it was decided that catching would highlight the top
round selections. This led to the selections of Jaramillo in round two, Marson
in round four and Cresswell in round ten.
Surprisingly, the Phils not only selected three top notch
prospects, but signed them all. While
the signing of Jaramillo, a college All-American from Oklahoma State was a
forgone conclusion, it was expected that the team would only be able to corral
one of the two high school stalwarts, either Marson or Cresswell but not both.
It was thought that one of the two HS standouts would honor
their college scholarships and bypass the Phils. Fortunately for the Phillies both Marson and Cresswell
decided to cast their futures with the City of Brotherly Love. This provided the team with the pleasant prospect of having
five major league catching prospects interspersed throughout the organization
and made future trades a strong possibility.
Undoubtedly the most advanced and talented of the five
backstops is Jaramillo, a player the Phils have long coveted.
Acknowledged by most collegiate scouts as the best defensive catcher in
college ball, Jaramillo is expected to make a rapid rise through the Phillie
system and become the regular catcher by the time Lieberthal departs in 2007.
While this may be a bit overly optimistic at this point given
Jaramillo's lack of professional experience, it is not an impossible task.
His defense is already major league ready, and if his bat catches up with
his defense, he could move quickly past Ruiz and Cortez on the charts and settle
in as the team's backstop when Lieberthal departs.
Although Jaramillo only hit .232 in limited appearances at
Batavia last summer, he is expected to hit well at full season Lakewood this
year. His strengths are a quick bat
and good knowledge of the strike zone. He
is also expected to develop solid extra base power as he grows into the
Cresswell is the youngest and least experienced of all the
Phillie catchers, but might have the best power potential.
A strapping left handed hitter from Arizona, Cresswell was considered the
best high school catching prospect in the state last year.
The Phils were quite surprised that Cresswell turned down a college
scholarship to Arizona State and took his bat and glove to the Gulf Coast
League, where he hit .245 in only 49 plate appearances.
The Phils expect Cresswell to repeat his '05 season in the
GCL and have no illusions about the patience they will need with him.
The team is hopeful that he will make the normal league by league
advances throughout the organization, and if this happens, he will be vying for
a job in Philadelphia no sooner than 2010.
With players like Ruiz, Cortez, Jaramillo and Marson in front of him,
there certainly will be no pressure put on Cresswell to fast forward his
While the public pronouncements speak of Ruiz and Jaramillo
as next in line to inherit Lieberthal's catching throne, the whispers speak of
Marson as potentially the best of the bunch.
Scouts literally rave at Marson's understanding of the game, and his
potential to one day become not only a strong defensive presence but a powerful
offensive force in Philadelphia.
Reared on the rich baseball fields of Texas, Marson hit four
home runs in very limited play last summer in the GCL.
In only 113 at bats, he hit. 257 and scored 18 runs while displaying a
sharp batting eye and surprising speed. He
stole four bases and showed the ability of a veteran instead of a youngster
fresh off the high school campus.
As with Cresswell, the Phillies will be patient with Marson,
preferring to err on the side of patience rather than risk rushing such a
potential jewel as Marson. Expect
him to stay at Extended Spring Training with Cresswell until the summer season
opens in Batavia. Marson will catch
everyday in Batavia and his progress will be watched closely by Phillie scouts
If he does well, and the team thinks he will, then a full
season campaign at Lakewood awaits the teen age Marson in 2006.
From there, his progress will dictate his advancement, though as with
Cresswell, he is expected to move up a notch at a time for the rest of the
decade. If he is deemed ready, he
may make his major league debut sometime in 2009.
From Lieberthal's stealth to Ruiz's rise, from Cortez's
connection to Jaramillo, Marson and Creswell's selection, the Phillie black
hole of the past has become a cornucopia of talent and resources.
Catching is no longer an afterthought when it comes to discussing
organization talent, and it was caused by nothing more rare than a strange and
timely event…a genuine Philadelphia convergence.
Columnist's Note: Please send comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza - aka CD - from the Left Coast