CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Catch A Break

Lou Marson

The year was 1992 when the Phillies selected a tall, skinny high school catcher from Westlake Village named Mike Lieberthal. Although he had played middle-infield in school, the Phillies' were convinced they could mold the athletic Lieberthal into a major league catcher. History shows that they were correct. Yet for almost a decade since, the farm system has been a proverbial "black hole" when it came to catching prospects. This is the case no more, as the Phils finally "catch a break."

In the long and storied history of Philadelphia baseball, National League style, the catching position has not been a major contributor to top flight players. Certainly, Andy Seminick was solid in the early 50s and Stan Lopata showed good power for a few years. More recently, Bob Boone and Darren Daulton were solid contributors to probably the best Phillie teams of all time and a good case could be made that either Boone or Daulton might lay claim as the greatest catcher in Phil's history.

As he faces what could well be his final season in red pinstripes, Lieberthal's place in historical terms is secure, as he has been a dependable and solid offensive player for almost ten years and was a very strong defensive player before knee problems curtailed his effectiveness a bit. Still, Mike Lieberthal is likely to be one of those players who is not truly appreciated until he departs. In fact, those who question and criticize the size and length of his contract probably have a short memory.

Yet, the reality of baseball is that change is inevitable and the chances that Lieberthal returns in 2007 are solely dependent on his ability to accept part-time or back up work at a very reduced salary. For the first time in a decade, the Phightins have a system teeming with solid minor league catching prospects at every level and it seems apparent that in 2007 the "changing of the shin guard" will finally take place. Let's take a look at some of the names likely to don the catching gear at Citizens Bank Park in the coming years.

When Lieberthal signed an extension to his contract in the summer of 2002, Philadelphia was a place players chose to flee rather than stay. The team was playing poorly after the trade of Scott Rolen and the conjecture was that Lieberthal might be the next top player to bolt. Instead, he signed an extension through the '06 season, a deal that seemed fair at the time, and still probably serves the Phils best in the short term.

Since he became the starting catcher, he has withstood the challenges of such minor league phenoms as Bobby Estalella and Gary Bennett as well as veterans like Benito Santiago and Todd Pratt. He has rarely complained, always been the ultimate team player and has always been a vocal voice of reason in a locker room that wasn't always filled with players of this ilk.

Not many phanatics were surprised when the new GM, Pat Gillick decide to finally cut the team's ties with the veteran Todd Pratt. Although he has been a popular servant for several years, his age and some rumored clubhouse disturbances were enough to guarantee that Lieberthal would have a new back up this summer. The surprise came when the Phils signed another veteran, Sal Fasano, to replace Pratt. Although a great defensive player with occasional power, Fasano seemed a strange choice given the fact the Phils are ready to promote Carlos Ruiz, a late blooming player with all the intangibles necessary to insure big league success.

After several seasons languishing in the lower minors, Ruiz had a breakthrough season in 2004 at Reading and backed it up with an even better campaign in '05 in Triple-A. While playing in 100 games at Scranton Wilkes-Barre, Ruiz hit .300 with 104 hits and a startling 9 triples. This is astounding speed for a catcher and those who have witnessed him on a regular basis say the number is no accident, Ruiz is that fast! Even more impressive is his defense and rocket arm.

There were fears of knee problems at the tail-end of the season, and this may have convinced Gillick to bring in Fasano, but Ruiz relieved those concerns with an outstanding winter season. His chance to go north with the big club will be determined in spring training but it will be a major surprise if Ruiz is not the starting catcher in September of 2006.

If Carlos Ruiz should eventually lasso the starting backstop position, it behooves him to impress quickly because immediately in his rear view mirror is young Jason Jaramillo, an even more impressive minor league catcher. Jaramillo was the second round draft pick out of Oklahoma State in '04 and has skipped nary a beat since he signed with the Phils. While toiling in 119 games at Lakewood this past year, Jaramillo not only displayed the defense that made him a collegiate All-American at OSU, but showed his offensive skills are on the upswing.

Jaramillo hit a solid .304 with 136 hits, including 28 doubles, 8 home runs and 63 RBI. The scouts have always felt he would go as far as his bat took him, since his glove has always been top notch. The Phils brain-trust rates Jaramillo higher on the chart than Ruiz, but both are talented enough to insure that the Phils are unlikely to go backstop hunting in the next few years, though the name Kelly Shoppach of Boston refuses to go away. Truth be told, Ruiz and Jaramillo seem every bit as skilled as the more ballyhooed Shoppach.

Under the Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever watch, Phillie prospects have normally advanced only one playing level per season, but whispers out of Clearwater are that the Phils are privately hoping Jaramillo can make the jump from Lakewood to Reading. Given his advanced collegiate training, this doesn't seem far fetched at all. If this should take place, Jaramillo will move to Triple-A in '07 and be ready to battle Ruiz for the starting job by the end of that season.

Have Bat, Will Travel seems an appropriate theme for Marc Tugwell, a player of some repute in the Phillie organization, albeit an athlete without a permanent position. Formerly a third baseman and a second baseman, Tugwell was moved to the catching position at Clearwater last year and continued to hit while displaying some promise behind the plate. Tugwell has always shown a propensity to hit, and his .295 average in 110 games last year was pretty much par for the course. Moving him to backstop seems a wise move and if Tugwell can continue to improve next season at Reading, he may warrant more than a look see in the coming campaigns.

If Marc Tugwell's star began to rise, then Jose Cortez and his star faded from sight after a dismal '05 season. In fact, the demise of Cortez as a hitter may have been one of the biggest disappointments in the farm system last year. After a promising first two seasons, Cortez seemed completely lost at Clearwater, as his .137 average might attest. Given Tugwell's improvement, and the advances of youngsters like Lou Marson, Charles Cresswell and Tuffy Gosewisch, it would not be a surprising development to see Cortez moved or released this spring if he starts slowly.

Listen closely to the whispers from Phillie scouts and coaches and it is difficult for them to conceal their enthusiasm for the potential of Louis Marson. In fact, as talented as Ruiz and Jaramillo currently are, there is little doubt that the catcher with the highest ceiling is Marson. Still only 19 years of age, Marson is considered a potential All-Star receiver some day if he continues to improve. Marson hit .245 at Batavia last year with decent power numbers [11 doubles, 5 home runs and 25 RBI] in a mere 60 games.

Still, it is his defense and powerful arm that have drawn comparisons to some of the past catching stars of the National League. This will be a fascinating year for Marson as he is expected to open at full-season Lakewood and his progress will be watched with great anticipation. If he does well, he could advance quickly through the system, setting up a situation where the Phils could someday be in the envious position of being able to use an excess catcher as trading material with another team.

If not for Marson, then Charles Cresswell, the only lefty hitter in the aforementioned group, would be evoking greater excitement with the Phillie organization. As it is, the Phils felt they drafted a veritable gold mine of catching prospects when they selected Jaramillo, Marson and Cresswell in the summer of 2004, all within the first ten rounds.

In fact, many people were surprised that Cresswell signed, given his status as a top power-hitting catcher in high school and the scholarship he was offered to a top Arizona college. Although a bit older than Marson, Charles Cresswell is less polished behind the plate and his hitting has yet to evolve. In limited action at the rookie level Gulf Coast League, Cresswell hit but .176 in a mere 23 games.

The Phils will tell us much of their hopes for Cresswell by where they place him to open the '05 season. If he should advance to Batavia, then the Phils will have indicated that they are satisfied with his progress and he will continue to take his place as a potential future Phillie backstop. If, however, he should return to the Gulf Coast League for yet a third season, then the chances of Cresswell ever making it to Citizens Bank Park will be slim indeed.

While ESPN has become a sports phenomenon over the past several years, there are few events more popular on their scheduling agenda than the annual College World Series. Over the course of several seasons, many great names have made their way through this televised event... J.D. Drew, Pat Burrell, Roger Clemens and Tuffy Gosewisch. Yes, that Tuffy Gosewisch, the young receiver from Arizona State, who became somewhat of a household name after his tremendous performance in Omaha last June at the collegiate series.

Prior to this event, Gosewisch was merely known as a decent college catcher at a great baseball program. The series elevated him to at least a potential big league prospect and the Phils happily selected him in last June's amateur draft. Once signed, they allowed him to rest most of the summer as he participated in merely a handful of games in the rookie league and hit .241. This told the Phils nothing of his long term potential, that will take place this season.

Just exactly where Gosewisch fits into the scheme is as yet unknown. As a college athlete, he is clearly a player in a hurry, without the luxury of fine tuning his talents like Marson and Cresswell. He should be advanced enough to make his '06 debut at Lakewood if possible and a better evaluation of his skills can be determined then. The chances are that he fits in somewhere below Ruiz, Jaramillo and Marson and somewhere above Tugwell, Cortez and Cresswell. Given his outstanding clutch hitting at Arizona State, he is an interesting study and could find his fortunes fluctuating depending of the speed of his progress.

The pleasant reality is that Gosewisch is currently at a position wealthy in talented major league prospects. It will be a major surprise if Ruiz, Jaramillo and Marson don't someday make their mark at Citizens Bank Park and the others will be given every opportunity to advance at their own pace. After far too many years of failed hopes and broken promises, it does appear that the Phillies backstop prospects are bright.

Indeed, it does look like the Phils have finally found a way to... "catch a break."

Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast

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