Who Is The Heir Apparent Behind The Plate?

You can't possibly have too many catchers in your farm system. The rigors of the position cause young players to fizzle early or face injuries that cause their careers to fall short. The Phillies have a solid number of young catchers to look at for their future.

The Phillies have had some pretty good catchers over the years. Just since the 70s, there's been the likes of Bob Boone, Darren Daulton and Mike Lieberthal. Plus, they've traded away catchers like Bobby Estalella and Johnny Estrada, who have had decent major league careers. There has probably been a deeper bunch of young catchers in the organization than there is now and it starts at the top.

Carlos Ruiz was looked at as a student coming into 2007. Veteran Rod Barajas was signed to mentor him and help shape him into an everyday catcher. Well, don't look now, but Ruiz spent most of the season as the Phillies number one catcher and Barajas is long gone from Philadelphia. Ruiz wasn't an immediate success. When he first arrived in the majors in 2006, he was timid and unsure of himself. He was the proverbial deer in the headlights and was back down at Triple-A before too long. Before he left though, manager Charlie Manuel gave him a bit of a talking to and told him that the next time he came up, he wanted to see a player who looked like he belonged there. Manuel stressed to Ruiz that he knew he could come through and would see him soon. When Ruiz returned, Manuel and everybody else did see a different player. Ruiz was suddenly confident and trusted his abilities and the numbers started to show it.

Once Barajas stumbled in 2007, Ruiz excelled. He was behind the plate on a regular basis and was getting rave reviews from the pitching staff on how he was handling them. In fact, Jamie Moyer was so impressed, he asked that Ruiz be behind the plate when he pitched, if possible. That's something to say when a veteran wants a young catcher working with him. Whether it was Moyer's encouragement or something else, Ruiz became a partner with the Phillies pitchers and wasn't afraid to let them know what they were doing wrong. As 2008 approaches, there will be no need to look for another mentor for young Mr. Ruiz.

There may be a little need for Ruiz to keep an eye over his shoulder, though.

Jason Jaramillo, the highly touted and highest drafted catcher from the Phillies "year of the catcher" draft in 2004 is inching closer to being major league ready. Jaramillo, playing his first full season at the Triple-A level, hit .271 for the Ottawa Lynx and found himself picked to be a member of Team USA. Jaramillo has been highly respected in the organization since being taken in the second round of the '04 Draft and was pushed up a level in 2006 so he could catch some of the organizations best pitching prospects at Double-A Reading that season. While his numbers fell off pretty substantially from his full-season debut at Lakewood in 2005, Jaramillo held his own at Reading and got a late season call-up to Triple-A.

Jaramillo combines offensive talent with defensive skills that are downright impressive. He's a born leader and takes charge of a pitching staff on the field. He's got a good, strong arm and isn't afraid to throw himself in front of a pitch in the dirt to make a play. He's the kind of catcher who seems to just be daring opponents to get involved in a collision at the plate. The switch-hitting Jaramillo doesn't have a lot of power, but figures to hit for a legitimate .270 in the majors and can get to a point where he'll pop maybe 10 or 12 home runs a year if all goes well. Since he was drafted, Jaramillo has been looked at as the answer to the Phillies long-term catching questions, although Ruiz has surprised some people in the organization with how well he's developed.

If Ruiz should be looking over his shoulder, so too should Jaramillo.

Lou Marson was taken just two rounds behind Jaramillo in the 2004 Draft. While he's always played second fiddle to Jaramillo, he's inching ever closer with his performance. Being drafted out of high school, Marson has had some catching up to do, but he's done it all quicker than the Phillies thought that he would. He's got a strong, athletic build and like Jaramillo, has a strong and accurate arm with a quick release and good mechanics behind the plate. If there is any disappointment in Marson's development, it's that his power hasn't become quite what most scouts thought it would be. Marson hit a career high seven home runs in 2007 and it was thought that he would be closer to double those numbers by now and could develop into an 18 to 20 home run guy. Overall though, his progress has been good and there aren't any reasons to worry about his potential to be an everyday major league player.

So, which of the three is going to be the best of the catchers?

Right now, Jaramillo still has a slim lead in the potential department. Marson has definitely narrowed the gap and Ruiz is already showing what he can do at the major league level, so the ranking would go Jaramillo, Ruiz and Marson, but any of the three can be a strong everyday catcher for a major league team. Of the three, he would seem to have the best all-around build for the job, but he did suffer a broken collarbone in high school and a shoulder injury late in the season this past summer, so there may be at least a hint of an issue about durability. In all truth though, the collarbone injury was suffered playing football and there is no reason to believe that he won't be ready for Spring Training because of the shoulder injury.

But, which of them will actually take over in Philadelphia?

There are a number of ways that the Phillies can go. They could bring Jaramillo and Marson along slowly and let them work their way into the next level, with Jaramillo possibly backing up Ruiz for a season or two to get himself settled in the majors. Or, there could be a trade. The Phillies might consider putting either Jaramillo or Marson in a package deal this off-season, knowing that they would still have the other one and Ruiz to handle the catching for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they won't trade any of them now and will wait to monitor their progress and possibly deal Ruiz when they feel Jaramillo is definitely ready to step in everyday. That timing would coincide with Ruiz' rise to the levels of the arbitration eligible and could save a little money that the team would use elsewhere at that point. The bottom line is that it's almost impossible to gauge how the three players will be treated and which of them may stay in the organization.

By the way, every catcher needs a back-up and the Phillies cabinet isn't empty there either.

The top candidate for that type of job is Tuffy Gosewisch. The Arizona State product was an 11th round pick in the 2005 Draft and doesn't have nearly the offensive skills that any of the top three catchers possess. Gosewisch's forte is in defense and handling pitchers. He's got great hands and drops down well to block pitches in the dirt and is smart and poised on the field, knowing how to handle different pitchers in different situations. It's thought that Gosewisch could have the kind of career that Todd Pratt had, only with even a little less offense. Still, for a back-up, that's workable.

Travis D'Arnaud and Caleb Mangum are two catchers that the Phillies added to the ranks in the 2007 Draft. D'Arnaus (the 37th overall pick) was a high schooler, while Mangum (round 24) went to North Carolina State. Both showed some good numbers in short-season ball this past summer, but the jury is still out on just how well they'll develop and how long it will be until they can be moving up the ladder with any sort of momentum. D'Arnaud in particular has definite skills and like the other young catchers, excells defensively. For D'Arnaud, his offense is a bit of a question mark and he showed that this summer, hitting .241 in the Gulf Coast League. Mangum, who combines a little more offensive potential with his defensive skills, hit .257 at Williamsport in his first taste of pro ball.

All in all, the Phillies have home plate pretty well protected. Ruiz is solid, Jaramillo is almost there and Marson continues to develop his skills nicely. It's not a bad position to be 'caught' in for any organization.



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