In Tuesday night’s victory over the Chicago Cubs, Charlie Manuel started Darin Ruf in right field. Ruf, who originally made a name for himself in the Phillies organization by crushing home runs at a Ruthian pace between double-A Reading and triple-A Lehigh Valley.
His hitting prowess forced the Phillies to consider him as a potential piece to the puzzle moving forward. After concluding that the team could no longer keep Ruf in the Minor Leagues, the only issue left was to find him a position to play. In the minor leagues, Ruf played a mix of 1st base and left field, leaving those two positions as the most reasonable for him to occupy in the majors.
Ruf’s push towards the big leagues became another reminder of the severity of the Ryan Howard contract boondoggle. If the Phillies hadn’t committed so much money to Howard, who’s contract took effect at nearly the same time he began to struggle mightily in all aspects of baseball. This left the team with the task of teaching Ruf to play the outfield to the best of his abilities, and subsequently giving him as much experience as possible in doing so in the minors. Now that the Phillies’ probability of making the playoffs is effectively zero (0.1% according to Baseball Prospectus), the Phillies have the opportunity to give Darin Ruf as many plate appearances and innings in the field at the major league level as possible.
Ruf has been quite impressive in his small sample size of major league experience. Other than his first few games in 2012 in which he entered the game only as a pinch-hitter, Ruf has reached base safely in every MLB game in which he has played. In fact, he’s gotten at least one hit in all but 6 games as a starter in his young career. More interestingly, Ruf’s statistics thus far leave much to the desirable eye. Despite early reports that Ruf might struggle a bit against right-handed pitching, and that he could benefit from facing more lefties early on, but so far he’s fared pretty well against righties and southpaws. His wRC+ against RHP so far is 166 and 175 against LHP. Looking at Ruf’s spray chart, it seems that he doesn’t completely favor one side of the field to another, which shows an ability to hit both fastballs and breaking balls especially since pitchers will continue to find his weak spots as time moves on.
Maybe due to the fact that the team is now fully out of contention, or the fact that by season’s end the team will have two consecutive seasons of mediocrity, but the immediate wave of young Phillies has begun to take shape. By young, I don’t mean in age, but instead in major league service time. If the Phillies sign Chase Utley to an extension over the offseason and allow Carlos Ruiz to walk, their 2014 starting lineup could very easily have a starting outfield of Domonic Brown, Ben Revere, and Darin Ruf. The infield would have some semblance of the ever-increasing past with Howard at first base, Utley at second, Rollins at shortstop, Cody Asche at third, and Eric Kratz behind the plate.
While the infield would remain 3/5 veteran players with hefty contracts, the outfield would be quite the opposite. Darin Ruf may be 27 years old, but he isn’t set to become a free agent until the 2019 season. His counterparts in the hypothetical starting outfield, Brown and Revere, aren’t eligible for free agency until 2018. Essentially, the Phillies could have three fairly talented starting outfielders under team control, and for a relatively inexpensive sum of money. All three players will eventually become eligible for arbitration, but even those steadily increasing one-year contracts will remain low-cost in comparison to the fortune the Phillies will have tied up at 1st base through 2016.
Not only do the Phillies have the opportunity to give these three young outfielders a chance to play everyday without worrying about payroll, but the team could very well have some increased flexibility moving forward. Recent trends in baseball have shown that it is vital to have reliable replacement players who can play multiple positions. John Mayberry Jr. fits this role well, performing at essentially a replacement-player level throughout his short MLB career. More importantly, Mayberry will not come up for free agency until 2017, making him a cheap option as a 4th outfielder who can crush left-handed pitching for the foreseeable future.
You might ask yourself why the Phillies, especially given Ruben Amaro’s modus operandi for using the money at his disposal so freely, wouldn’t more immediately improve their outfield through free agency. This constitutes a good question, especially since it seems that the team needs to rank especially well in TV ratings at least until their current TV contract ends in 2015. Having some bigger name players in the outfield might bring more attention to the team and allow them to more easily negotiate what could be one of the last big TV deals given to an MLB club. In that case, let’s take a look at this offseason’s impending free agency market for outfielders.
The list includes Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence, and Nelson Cruz. Ellsbury could very well resign with the Red Sox, but even if he doesn’t, as a Scott Boras client he’ll most likely command at least $100 million on the open market, and he plays center field. While his name might get thrown around in rumors involving the Phillies, even Ruben Amaro can see that signing Ellsbury would not prove beneficial. Choo has played center field this season, but he’s truly a corner outfielder who gets on base, has some power, and has a good arm in the outfield. At 30 years old, has already racked up some productive years, but he would most likely be searching for too many years than the Phillies should and hopefully would be willing to give him.
Beltran is looking to play 3 more seasons, and to do so for a contending team. The right fielder continues to remain productive, and will have the interest of numerous contending teams this offseason, making it less likely he would want to come to Philadelphia. Pence and Cruz show more potential as candidates for the Phillies in free agency, expect both the Giants and Rangers will most likely make the two right fielders qualifying offers, which if Pence and Cruz reject (they will), would cost the Phillies their first round draft pick was the team to sign either player. This usually wouldn’t stop Ruben Amaro, but hopefully he will realize that neither player’s potential return is worth relinquishing what could be the best draft pick the Phillies will have in recent years.
The outfield market for 2015 actually gets worse, with players like Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Brett Gardner, and Nick Markakis headlining the group of potential free agents. Between the Phillies intentions for 2014 and the lack of desirable talent in 2015, Phillies fans should hope that an outfield of Brown, Revere, and Ruf will continue to start for the foreseeable future. With Kelly Dugan hitting his way through the minor leagues, settling currently into double-A, his presence might not be felt in the majors until 2015. While he might provide the Phillies a solid outfield piece in the future, Dugan needs much more work in the minors, making him unthreatening for now, but appetizing as an option down the road.
The Phillies outfield isn’t locked in for 2014 by any measure, but it should be. Brown’s arbitration years won’t begin until 2015, making it smart for the team to sign him to a team friendly contract within the next calendar year. Whether the team decides to make an offer to Brown or not, the team should continue to play Darin Ruf. Ben Revere’s incredible range allows them to keep a slower outfielder like Ruf playing there most days, and more importantly, the Phillies have to use this “rebuilding” time to see is Ruf can play everyday in the majors at an above-average level. So far, this writer likes what he sees from Ruf, but 2014 will become the proving grounds going forward.