CD's Connect the Dots... No Chance

Carlos Ruiz

There are no free rides in professional sports, nor should there be. With rank comes responsibility, and athletes know and understand this. Oh, there are the occasional "chosen" few, who feel that they have earned the right to special privileges simply because of past accomplishments, but they are few and far between. Yet, for the young and ambitious, and especially for those who have earned the right to compete for a job, there are no more bitter words to swallow than these..."no chance!"

For far too many years to count, the Philadelphia Phillies have been an organization that had a reputation for placing great emphasis on the "veteran" presence and leadership. Youngsters like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Gavin Floyd chafed under a system that seemed to reward players simply for being veterans rather than on the merits of their talents. Utley should have become a starting infielder two seasons ago and Howard was nearly traded for inferior talent simply because they were not given the opportunity to succeed with the Phils.

As for Floyd, it is still my contention that he was ruined last season when, after a brilliant two-hit performance in his initial start during the first week of the season, he awoke the next day to read that he would soon be shoved aside either to the bullpen or back to the minors as soon as the "veteran" Vicente Padilla was deemed capable of pitching. Needless to say, Floyd's next start was an unmitigated disaster and he has been seeking to regain his lost curveball and confidence ever since.

Still, things did appear to be changing somewhat under the new leadership of General Manager Pat Gillick. Flush from the success of Utley and Howard, and to a lesser extent, hurlers like Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito, the team talked of providing opportunities for what appears to be a burgeoning group of potential impact players who are fresh off some solid minor league seasons.

The noted author Ralph Waldo Emerson probably put it best when he said "Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterday." Sadly, based on recent reports from spring training, the 2006 Philadelphia Phillies appear to have ignored Emerson's wise words.

Catcher Carlos Ruiz is no longer young nor inexperienced. Recently turned 27 years of age, he has toiled faithfully through the Phillie system, with increasing success at every stop. His breakout campaign came in 2004 when he hit .284 with 17 home runs at Reading of the Double-A Eastern League. Historically, this is the league that separates the wheat from the chaff and Ruiz' outstanding season appeared to have placed him squarely on the Phillie radar screen for future employment.

Even more impressive was his performance in 2005 while at Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre. Already established as the best defensive catcher in the league, he blossomed as a hitter to the tune of a .300 batting average and a quite revealing nine triples. For a catcher, speed is like striking gold, and it is impossible to leg out nine triples without proper speed. Clearly, Carlos Ruiz was a player who had earned the right to compete for a job with this year's Phillie club, even if his status was not guaranteed.

Although the team did sign the "veteran" Sal Fasano in the off-season to replace the departed Todd Pratt as a potential backup to starter Mike Lieberthal, the prevailing wisdom among Phillie phaithful was that Ruiz would rightfully be allowed to compete with Fasano for the backstop position. Remember, it is not important that a youngster be guaranteed a spot on the major league roster; merely he should be given the right to compete for the position and Ruiz' previous two campaigns in the minors seemingly had earned him this privilege.

Sadly, the day that Ruiz arrived in camp, when spring optimism should be blooming at it's brightest, it was written that the talented Panamanian had "no chance" of making the major league roster. It was written almost in passing and would probably have gathered nary a contrary word in previous seasons. However, under a new regime that appears committed to doing things differently, the impact these two tiny words have, not only on Ruiz but for countless other aspiring young successful players in the system, cannot be minimized.

Oh, one could spend wasteful time and energy attempting to assign a reason for the team's seemingly rash decisions. They may be unhappy that he arrived three days late in camp, a victim of visa problems while attempting to come to the states from Panama. Or, the team may have a dim view of his potential departure to play for his native country in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

There is speculation that the Phils are privately concerned about his sometimes balky knees and are not inclined to count on his ability to handle the rigors of daily squatting behind the plate. All well and good, and fair enough. Yet, for a professional team to openly announce on the first day of camp that a solid minor league prospect who has more than paid his dues in minor league apprenticeship has "no chance" of going north with the club out of spring training smacks of a decided short-sighted lack of vision.

Not only is Ruiz affected by this decision but potentially, so are many other Phillie prospects in the major league camp. What must recently signed outfielder Josh Kroeger be thinking right now? Certainly, Ruiz had a better 2005 season than did the slugging Kroeger, and if the catcher has "no chance", why should Kroeger think his opportunity will be any better?

One can only surmise what must be going through the mind of speedy young outfielder, Chris Roberson, also fresh off a .300 plus minor league campaign. No doubt, he arrived in camp with the hope that he might at least entertain the thought that a solid spring might garner him a coveted major league spot on the 25 man roster. Unfortunately, if the Ruiz story is any indication, then both Kroeger and Roberson will soon be joining Ruiz back at Scranton regardless of how skillfully they perform in spring training.

Ironically, given their ongoing 20 year record, it would seem to behoove the Phils to not only offer Ruiz a fair shot at making the club but trumpeting the possibility. Truth be told, the club's lack of ability to develop Latin American hitting talent since the early 1980s is glaring. Not since the days of George Bell, Julio Franco and Juan Samuel has the team signed and developed top flight major league Latin hitters and even then, Bell and Franco were lost in either ill-conceived draft snafus or trade mistakes. Only the gifted Samuel was allowed to blossom in Philadelphia.

Since then the track record is abysmal, though in all fairness, the same can not be said on the pitching front. There the story is much more encouraging and names like Tejeda and Brito as well as prospects like Carlos Carrasco, Edgar Garcia and Maximo de la Cruz may some day grace the grasses at Citizens Bank Park.

Yet no defense of their top flight Latin pitching prospects can be mentioned without also mentioning the failure of such seemingly talented everyday players as Carlos Rodriguez, Jorge Padilla and Juan Richardson to maximize their potential in the Phillie pharm system. Not so Ruiz, who has flourished, and should be applauded for his ability to make his way up the minor league ladder.

Instead, if what was written is to believed, Ruiz will once again be forced to display his abilities in Triple-A while a recently signed 34 year old free agent from Baltimore has been anointed with the job. This is in no way diminishing the potential contributions of Sal Fasano, who seems defensively adept enough and does come with a resume that includes 11 home runs in only 160 at bats last season with the Orioles.

Nevertheless, the simple fact is that the Phils appear willing to enter the 2006 campaign with not one but two receivers who are unlikely to remain with the club past the upcoming season. The popular and productive Mike Lieberthal is in the final season of a long-term contract and has even waxed poetic about how bittersweet his final season in Philadelphia is likely to be. He knows that unless he puts up numbers like he did in 2003, he will become a free agent and is unlikely to be offered another deal with the Phils.

As for Fasano, the team certainly showed their cards in the future plans they have for him by offering him no more than a one-year deal for a paltry $500,000. In the reality of business that is baseball, this is almost the equivalent of a first year player's salary. A player like Carlos Ruiz.

One has to ask oneself, just what the organization has planned for Ruiz. As has been previously noted, the Phils have quietly and somewhat quickly removed the "black hole" title from their long dormant catching prospect list in the past few amateur drafts. Along with the sudden emergence of Ruiz, the team drafted such future major league prospects like Jason Jaramillo, Louis Marson, Charles Cresswell and Tuffy Gosewisch. Each in their own various degrees not only has the aspirations but the talent to become solid major league backstops.

The Phils have begun extolling the virtues of Jaramillo, a collegiate All-American from Oklahoma State, who is slated to play at Reading this year. They have also mentioned on more than one occasion that they feel Marson has the highest ceiling of any of the catchers and they also like Cresswell and Gosewisch very much. Still, none of them will be ready for major league duty in 2007 and that leaves the question of just who will inherit the position that year.

The obvious answer would seem to be Carlos Ruiz, but one wonders just how he will respond if the reports about his chances of making this year's squad are indeed accurate. It would not be surprising should he begin to quietly doubt his long-term prospects of ever earning a spot with the team, if after having a "career" year in Triple-A and following that up with a solid winter ball season, he was dismissed so quickly this spring. It will be fascinating to watch how he responds to this seeming snub.

At some point in time, and probably sooner rather than later, the Philadelphia Phillies must decide just what direction they will take as a franchise. They have no greater role models than the two franchises that most bitterly contend with the Phils for NL Eastern Division dominance, the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets. The contrast between the Braves and Mets could not be more pronounced and it would seem that the Phils will choose to either emulate one or the other.

On the one hand, there are the Atlanta Braves, winners of 14 straight division titles, and confident of winning yet another this season. They have chosen to do it with youth, and no less than 18 rookies graced their roster at some point last season, with eight of them making the playoff roster. Players like Jeff Francoeur, Wilson Betemit, Ryan Langerhans, Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson, Macay McBride and Kyle Davies were given significant roles last season and responded brilliantly. They are expected to play a large part in the defense of yet another East title.

By contrast, the New York Mats have literally decimated their minor league system in the pursuit of the quick fix title by bringing in veterans like Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, Julio Franco, Brett Boone, and Paul LoDuca. The Mets appear equally confident that their way is the correct way to do things and fully expect to not only win the East this year but advance to the World Series.

Still, the Braves Way appears to me a much more logical and wise to build a franchise for the long haul and it would seem that the Phils would be better served to follow this path than the way of their rivals to the north. Yet, the decision to so quickly dismiss Ruiz is a disquieting signal that the ill-conceived ways of the past may once again be revisiting the present.

Phillie phans need not have long memories to conjure up nightmares of veterans like Tim Worrell, Todd Jones, Turk Wendell, Terry Adams, Dennis Cook, Mike Williams and the recently departed Ramon Martinez and Endy Chavez. How many youngsters were sacrificed for the often paltry contributions of this aforementioned group of vets? Far too many to count. Yet those are the sins of a front office past and should not be repeated again as frustrated Phillie phanatics are in no mood to wait a dozen more seasons for some playoff glory.

Certainly it is possible that the seeming dismissal of Ruiz as an active candidate for major league employment in '05 may be just an aberration. After all, the team does seem determined to include Ryan Madson in their starting rotation plans and have made constant reference to youngsters like Gavin Floyd, Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito as likely candidates for the fifth starting rotation slot.

They have created a valuable role on the roster for International League MVP Shane Victorino by trading outfielder Jason Michaels. They appear open to beginning the '06 campaign with a youngster like Matt Kata over the more experienced "veteran presence" of a player like Tomas Perez. These are all welcome signs and give reason for optimism that Gillick and Company are serious when they profess an earnest desire to reward homegrown talent with their just due.

Still, the news on Ruiz remains disquieting indeed, if true, and does not bode well for a team that professes a philosophical shift in the way they plan on doing things from the past. It is as true in sport as it is in life that action speaks louder than words and the seeming decision to completely dismiss Ruiz' candidacy for a catching position would seem to speak volumes.

Just as the minor leaguers of the past watched with interest the way that youngsters like Utley and Howard were often overlooked, so too will today's talented youth watch with interest the eventual destination of Carlos Ruiz. In the not too distant future, names like Michael Bourn, Mike Costanzo, Jake Blalock, Tim Moss and Scott Mathieson will be ready, willing and able for major league duty with the Phils. Will they be given every opportunity to succeed, much as has happened to the youngsters in Atlanta, or rather will the Phils continue to desire the quick fix remedies ala the New York Mets.

At this point, the answer remains unclear and may remain so for quite some time. Gillick is still becoming comfortable in Phillie garb and has yet to completely assemble his impressive rolodex file of trusted baseball employees. It would be no major surprise if current manager, Charlie Manuel, is not the long-term solution to what ails the Phils and another dismal April could quickly jettison the often overmatched Manuel for someone like Davy Johnson or Lou Piniella, both of whom have had success with Gillick before.

And yet, the question still becomes, "just what direction will the team take in the coming years?" Will the franchise settle into the comfort zone of a New York Mets south and continually uproot the team for players with far too many years and far too little success or rather borrow on the textbook ways of becoming an Atlanta Braves north and building from within?

Of these decisions are championships won or lost. It is not for me to attempt a guess just yet on which way the team will choose to venture out but if faced with a question about the expectations for a successful future by following the path of the bitter rival New York Mets, I would quickly respond with but two words..."No Chance!"

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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