Will Ruiz Take Over Catching For '07 Phils?

Many thought that by now, Carlos Ruiz would be wrapping up his first full season in the majors. Instead, he's had three different stints with the big league club and is still waiting his turn behind the plate.

It seemed easy enough. Carlos Ruiz would back up Mike Lieberthal, who figured to be in his last seasn with the Phillies - and possibly the last of his career - and Ruiz would slowly take over more and more of the responsibilities. Then, by next season, he would be all set to take the full-time reins as the Phillies catcher. Then, the Phillies signed Sal Fasano.

Instead of being an important part of the Phillies' plans, Ruiz didn't get much of a look in camp and was sent back to AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre. Ruiz had just three at bats with the big league club this spring, even fewer than the eight that he had in 2005. To say that he was being overlooked would be an understatement. Ruiz was being buried.

Eventually, Sal Fasano was dealt to the Yankees, but it wasn't to make room for Ruiz. It was to make room for Chris Coste - the upstart the 33 year old rookie. He arrived in the majors and made his mark, taking over as Lieberthal's backup and gaining more and more playing time as Lieberthal first slumped and then gave in to a balky back. Ruiz was in Northeast Pennsylvania, toiling at the minor league levels, putting up impressive numbers for the Red Barons, but it wasn't where he wanted to be.

Ruiz didn't help his chances much by looking overmatched when he was given a chance to play at the major league level. He simply didn't look ready for major league pitching and there was talk that the Phillies might have been wise in bypassing him for the catching position. That perhaps, he wasn't capable of playing in the majors even though he had put up strong minor league numbers.

At Scranton, Ruiz was playing for another former catcher, John Russell, who was in his first season as the Red Barons' manager.

John Russell knows catchers.

Russell spent 10 seasons behind the plate during his major league career. For the past three years, he was the Pirates' catching instructor. And after managing Carlos Ruiz this season, he believes the 27-year-old is equipped to be the Phillies' starting catcher in 2007.

"I think he has the mentality and the tools to do it," Russell said Thursday. "From what I've seen of him, I see him getting more comfortable. I do think he can be somewhat of an everyday guy."

Ruiz, who homered Wednesday to help the Phillies sweep a double-header from the Braves, is batting .237 with three homers and 12 RBI in 23 games during three call-ups this season. But since his most recent promotion on August 31, he's 5-for-15 (.333) with two homers and four RBI.

"He's made a lot of strides this year, especially catching and calling a game," Russell said. "He showed up when the game mattered. When things were tight and we needed a big hit or (to) throw somebody out or (to) block a ball in the dirt, he was there."

That's exactly what Russell noted in nightly reports that were passed along to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who thought Ruiz was nervous during his first call-up.

But, with veteran catcher Mike Lieberthal not expected to be re-signed and the free agent market for catchers looking thin, Manuel said he's comfortable with Ruiz and 33-year-old rookie Chris Coste sharing the position next season.

"It's not like we can't win with Ruiz and Coste," Manuel said. "Ruiz has shown some of that power they said he had in Triple-A."

So, will it be Ruiz and Coste behind the plate next season for the Phillies? It's been a long time since the Phillies worried much about their catcher with Lieberthal handling the job throughout his career. Some believe that the Phillies may be interested in re-signing Lieberthal if he would accept a greatly reduced role and the greatly reduced salary that would come with it. That could throw a bit of a cog into things, but it likely wouldn't effect Ruiz. Odds are that Ruiz and Coste would still be on the roster, with Coste possibly playing backup at some other spots for the club. He could become somewhat of a super-sub, while still doing some catching here and there.

Carlos Ruiz' 2006 Stats

Scranton 11 55 .307 84 360 48 94 22 0 3 36 50 .391
Phillies 3 7 .237 24 59 5 14 0 1 0 4 6 .292

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