Are Todd Pratt's Days as a Phillie Numbered?

While the real battles are in center field and the bullpen, there is another, quieter battle going on behind the plate. Todd Pratt and A.J. Hinch are locked in a battle that could mean the end of Pratt's days in Philadelphia. And then, there's Carlos Ruiz waiting in the wings to take over for either of them next season.

Perhaps, Todd Pratt sees the writing on the wall. Many feel that Pratt, generally very affable and fun during spring training has had a slightly different demeanor this spring. After all, Pratt wasn't the Phillies' first choice to back up Mike Lieberthal; that was Sandy Alomar, Jr., who failed a physical and was eliminated from consideration. Immediately, GM Ed Wade went to Pratt, a known quantity in Philadelphia, to backup Lieberthal just as he has since 2001 when he was reacquired from the Mets.

At the time, Pratt was seemingly silent about the situation. He seemed to be a good soldier, simply enjoying his time in Philadelphia, knowing that his career doesn't likely have too much time remaining on the clock. Still, the demeanor has been different. It showed recently when Pratt was interviewed - briefly - by Comcast SportsNet's Leslie Gudel. Pratt was asked simply and straightforwardly about a growing sentiment that A.J. Hinch could take over Pratt's job on the roster and Pratt abruptly ended the interview by walking away. Perhaps, the question hit too close to home.

Would the Phillies replace Pratt with Hinch? It's not out of the question. Hinch certainly doesn't carry the major league pedigree that Pratt brings, but he does bring some positives. Defensively, Hinch is every bit of a qualified backup catcher. He knows how to handle pitchers and has been praised by many of the pitchers that he has caught over his time in the minors and his somewhat limited time in the majors. His arm is above average and he throws out runners attempting to steal on a pretty solid basis. Offensively, Hinch is weak. In seven major league seasons - just 350 games - Hinch is just a .219 hitter. Hinch does actually have an advantage in homerun/at bats ratio over Pratt, having hit just six less homeruns in 190 less at bats.

As for Pratt, his defense is adequate and pitchers also love working with him. His arm isn't in the same league as Hinch's. Running off of Todd Pratt is much easier than it is to run off of A.J. Hinch. Pratt has been known primarily for his tough style of play and his offense. The 38 year old is a career .255 hitter, but has a way of throwing in key hits at big points in the game.

The big question is whether the Phillies will sacrifice some offense and known leadership that Pratt brings to the team in favor of improved defense from A.J. Hinch. It's possible, since Pratt's offensive numbers have been sliding. After hitting .311 in 2002, Pratt's average has slid to .272 in '03 and just .258 last season. His walks have declined, while his strikeout numbers have risen slightly. The changing walk/strikeout ratio and his falling average have knocked down his on-base percentage.

It was assumed that 2005 would be Pratt's last season in Philadelphia. It's likely that they will hand the backup duties to Carlos Ruiz next season, provided that Ruiz flourishes at AAA Scranton this season. Much like Hinch, Ruiz was known primarily for his defense until a breakout offensive season at AA Reading in 2004. The 25 year old hit .285 with 17 homeruns at Reading and has placed himself firmly on the prospect radar for the Phillies. The 17 homeruns set a career high for Ruiz, who had a previous high of five and had hit just 18 career homeruns in five minor league seasons coming into 2004. Ruiz has thrown out some of the fastest runners in the minors and has opened eyes in both the Arizona Fall League and this spring with the Phillies.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the Phillies aren't really sure there's room for both Hinch and Ruiz at Scranton. The Phillies definitely want Ruiz to play on an everyday basis, but Hinch would command a good chunk of at bats as well. Finding a major league job for Hinch - if the Phillies decide to go that route - would make things a little simpler at the AAA level. Of course, that won't be a determining factor in the decision.

Whether it's before or after the 2005 season, Todd Pratt's days in Philadelphia are coming to an end. Likely, his days as a major leaguer are coming to an end as well. Some players have a tough time with that and those feelings may be part of what Pratt is grappling with this spring. The handwriting is on the wall. Everyday in camp, Pratt sees both his current and future competition. The Phillies are taking a long, hard look at catchers and will have a tough decision to make. No matter how and when it ends, Phillies fans owe Pratt a debt of gratitude. He has been a warrior. Breaking into the majors with the Phillies in '92, Pratt has played all or part of seven major league seasons as a Phillie. During that time, he has hit 21-91-.258 and has done everything the Phillies have asked of him. Whether it was going to be Alomar or will be Hinch or Ruiz, Todd Pratt will be replaced as Mike Lieberthal's backup and it won't be easy for him or for Phillies fans to adjust to.

CAREER STATS HR RBI AVG G AB R H 2B 3B BB KO OBP
Todd Pratt 38 182 .255 540 1302 163 332 74 3 177 361 .352
A.J. Hinch 32 112 .219 350 953 104 209 28 3 71 214 .280

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