Carlos Ruiz seems to fit the mold.
Red Sox manager John Farrell said Wednesday that free-agent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia “absolutely” has a future in Boston. If Saltalamacchia ends up signing elsewhere, however, the Red Sox should consider pursuing Ruiz, who is also a free agent after spending eight seasons with the Phillies.
Saltalamacchia is coming off his best big league season yet, and he just may be the Red Sox’ top priority when it comes to the club’s catching situation. But Boston still needs to formulate a Plan B in case Saltalamacchia walks, and CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury reports that the Sox are doing their due diligence on Ruiz.
Signing Ruiz makes total sense for the Sox if Saltalamacchia signs elsewhere. He is a buy-low candidate coming off a down year, which is right in line with the types of players who general manager Ben Cherington pursued last offseason. Granted, Ruiz will be 35 in January, so he’s a few years older than Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew — all buy-low options signed by Boston last offseason — but the veteran backstop has a proven track record and improved in the second half of 2013 following a slow start.
Ruiz hit .268 with five home runs, 37 RBIs and a .320 on-base percentage in 92 games during a 2013 season that was plagued both by injuries and a 25-game suspension stemming from a positive test for Adderall. But Ruiz hit .288 with a .343 on-base percentage over the season’s final two months, including .333 (29-for-87) in August, so it’s not as if the tank suddenly looked empty.
Ruiz was an All-Star in 2012, and while his services were certainly respected in Philadelphia, you could make the case that he was very underrated, particularly when stacked up against the Joe Mauers, Yadier Molinas and Brian McCanns of the world. No, Ruiz isn’t any of those three, especially now that he’s entering the twilight of his career, but his offensive production isn’t all that far behind.
Ruiz posted career-highs in average (.325), home runs (16), RBIs (68) and OPS (.935) in 114 games in 2012, although it’s his propensity for getting on base that makes him a really nice fit for the Red Sox. Ruiz had a .394 on-base percentage in 2012 and a career-high .400 OBP in 2010. The 2012 mark placed him third among major league catchers with at least 400 plate appearances — behind Mauer (.416) and 2012 MVP Buster Posey (.408) — and the 2010 mark placed him second.
It’s unlikely that Ruiz will replicate those on-base figures moving forward. Father Time is always standing by waiting to intervene. But it’s very likely that Ruiz’s overall offensive approach would play well on a Red Sox team that prides itself on driving up pitch counts, getting on base and relying on timely hits.
There’s also Ruiz’s success against left-handers. Saltalamacchia hit just .218 (26-for-119) against lefties in 2013 — as opposed to .294 (90-for-306) against righties. Ruiz, on the other hand, hit .300 (24-for-80) versus southpaws, and his career splits versus righties and lefties are fairly even. Ruiz’s career .804 OPS against lefties is much higher than Saltalamacchia’s .599 mark.
In addition to his offensive pop, Ruiz provides above-average defense, which would represent an area of improvement for the Red Sox. Opposing teams were able to expose Saltalamacchia’s defense at times in 2013, and Ruiz — working in conjunction with the defensively adept David Ross — would help minimize such occurrences.
The big question that the Red Sox face in addition to whether they can hammer out a deal with Saltalamacchia, who has stated multiple times that he’d like to return to Boston, is how much faith they have in Ryan Lavarnway. The 26-year-old showed improvement in 2013 after seeing his stock drop drastically in 2012, but did he do enough in his limited opportunities to prove that he’s capable of handling the catching duties for 110-120 games? A safer bet might be to add a veteran — like Ruiz — on a two- or three-year deal while Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart continue their development in the minors.
Saltalamacchia is a known commodity who showed vast improvement in 2013. His plate discipline improved, he demonstrated an ability to use all fields and the rapport that he built with the Red Sox’ pitching staff led to a mutual trust that’s important for big league batteries. But if things don’t work out at the bargaining table this winter, the Red Sox would be wise to have Ruiz pull up a chair and work something out.
Photo via Flickr/Darrins