Less than a week after signing 36-year-old rightfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year contract, the Philadelphia Phillies have re-signed veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz to a three-year deal worth $26 million that will cover his age-35 to -37 seasons with a $4.5 million club option for 2017. On the surface, the deals are similar. Both have an average annual value of about $8 million per season (exactly that for Byrd, $8.5M for Ruiz), and provide a veteran righthanded bat to a mostly lefty-heavy lineup. However, whereas Byrd's deal made a modicum of sense for a Phillies team that continues to resist a rebuild, the Ruiz contract looks like a step too far.
As a general rule, giving 35-year-old catchers a multi-year deal is bad business because of their sharp declines. Consider this list of the most valuable expansion-era catchers age 35 to 37 by cumulative Wins Above Replacement. A league-average starter is usually worth about 2.0 bWAR per season. Since 1961, only four catchers have averaged 2.0 bWAR across their age-35 to -37 seasons. Ruiz, a late-bloomer who didn't play professional baseball in the United States until he was 21 and didn't become a major league regular until 28, compiled just 1.7 bWAR last year while missing 25 games due to a suspension for a failed drug test and another month on the DL because of a hamstring strain.
Ruiz also had his worst season at the plate since 2008, batting .268 with five home runs and a .688 OPS, revealing his power surge in 2012 (16 HRs, .935 OPS) to be a fluke. Meanwhile his walk rate, which had been a central part of his value at the plate during his prime, declined for the third-straight season, dropping from one unintentional walk every 8.5 plate appearances in 2010 to one every 20.5 PA in 2013. Ruiz does grade out as an above-average defensive catcher, but he gets no extra boost from the recent pitch-framing studies, which rate him below average in that regard, and he has been exactly average against the running game during his career.
All of that suggests that, while Ruiz may have been an underrated player in the past, heading into his age-35 season, he doesn't have far to fall before he's little more than a replacement-level catcher. That makes his new contract, which includes a limited no-trade clause, a burden to his team. Ruiz hit .268/.320/.368 this past season, while the average major league catcher hit .245/.310/.388. Philadelphia is obviously hoping for a bounce-back, but further decline -- and more time spent on the DL -- is more likely. It may not be long before Ruiz no longer represents significant improvement on homegrown backstop Cameron Rupp, if he even does now. Rupp, who will be a 25-year-old rookie next season, has hit .258/.334/.406 in his minor league career with a high caught-stealing rate and made his major league debut this September. Nonetheless, the Phillies' plan this offseason is clear: keep the band together and hope for the best. With Ryan Howard (who turns 34 tomorrow) and Jimmy Rollins (35 next week) still owed big money, Chase Utley (35 in December) recently given an extension, Ruiz back under contract and the age-appropriate Byrd joining in on tambourine -- all are signed at least through 2015 -- Philadelphia shows no signs of rebulding. The only question now is what aging starter the team will add to its rotation alongside 35-year-old Cliff Lee, the only Phillies veteran who is still performing at a peak level.