Many fans are intrigued by the possibilities of what Darin Ruf could bring to the 2013 Phillies.
Virtually an unknown prior to his breakout 2012 season, Ruf took the Eastern League by storm, bashing 38 home runs and driving in 105 runs. With the Phillies lacking for a right-handed power bat ever since Jayson Werth left for D.C. millions, Ruf’s presence could change the entire dynamic of their lineup
In a brief September audition with the Phillies, he did not disappoint. Despite getting only 33 at-bats Ruf showed the type of power and poise he demonstrated in Reading, and gave fans something to be excited about after a lackluster season.
With Ryan Howard and his massive contract entrenched at first base for the foreseeable future, Ruf is spending his offseason learning to play the outfield If he’s successful, the Phillies may have found their left fielder for the next several seasons.
However, regardless of how well he learns to play the outfield or what type of potential Ruf brings, the chances of the Phillies making him their opening day left fielder next season are miniscule. It might not be the right choice—he’s already 26 years old and has shown he can dominate minor league pitching—but it’s unlikely he will be anywhere other than Lehigh Valley next April.
While Ruf has only just come onto the scene, he has not disappointed at any level he’s played. After his tremendous season for the Reading Phillies—eclipsing Ryan Howard’s club record for home runs—he was promoted to the big-league club and awed fans with his prowess. Then in the Venezuelan Winter League—while learning to play the outfield—he’s continued his assault, launching ten more home runs.
With his abilities, attitude, desire and—perhaps most importantly for a team approaching the luxury tax threshold—price, Ruf is an ideal fit in the Phillies lineup. If he is able to produce even a fraction of what he did in the minors at big-league level, the Phillies will be a much better, more balanced offensive team in 2013.
However, I just can’t see it.
I don’t see the Phillies giving him an opportunity—at least not at the start of the season, and not until all of their other options are exhausted first.
Historically the Phillies are not known as an organization that gives young players much of an opportunity to play.
With Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro at the helm, they tend to go with experienced veterans, only willing to turn to younger players when their hands are forced.
Over the last several seasons, they have traded away nearly every top prospect in the organization. The one they've held on to has been Domonic Brown. Despite being shuffled back and forth between the majors and minor leagues (probably to his detriment) the Phillies still seem to believe in his abilities.
Or at least they feel compelled to. Even with nearly a full season’s worth of play spread out over three calendar years, Brown is still as much of an unknown as Darin Ruf is.
The difference is that the Phillies have reached the do-or-die point with Brown; they HAVE to find out if he can play at the major league level, and in 2013 he will be given every opportunity to show that he can.
With the team’s history of shying away from young players, it is highly unlikely they will begin the 2013 season with two unknowns in their outfield. They know they have to play Brown in 2013; Ruf, despite being perhaps the better player, can wait a year or so.
It might not be the best decision from an on-the-field baseball standpoint, but they have more invested, and thus more to lose, with Domonic Brown. With options left, Darin Ruf is ticketed for Lehigh Valley.
The Phillies headed into the offseason with multiple holes in their outfield, and they have made no secret of their intention to significantly upgrade it—and specifically center field. It’s also fairly well known that B.J. Upton is at the top of their wish list. (Why I don’t know.)
Bringing in a talent like Upton will likely require a five- or six-year contract at high dollars, guaranteeing him an everyday spot in the Phillies lineup for years to come. His presence on the team (or the presence of whatever backup plan they invest in should Upton choose another team’s dollars) will take up a roster spot and a place on the field that could otherwise be used for their newest minor league phenom.
With Brown the starter in right field and Upton in center, only left field remains for Darin Ruf.
While none of their names cause excitement for anyone in the fanbase, the fact is that these three are either guaranteed money in 2013 or under team control without the ability to be optioned to the minor leagues.
Mayberry or Schierholtz could potentially be non-tendered (with Schierholtz more likely, as his price-tag through arbitration could reach or exceed $2.5 million), but it’s likely at least two of the three are back.
A platoon of Mayberry/Nix, while not appealing in any way for those of us who have watched them play, is definitely in the realm of possibilities.
At least at the start of the season, until they're forced to change things up.
As mentioned in the opening, Darin Ruf is a first baseman by trade. He’s a big slow guy with power. He’s a younger version of Ryan Howard, but doesn’t have (yet) the massive contract to go with him.
When the Phillies signed Howard to that extension a few years ago, they committed to building their team around him for the foreseeable future. While Howard’s production has dropped significantly since the ink dried, the dollars guaranteed him have not.
Howard cannot play any other position besides first base. He won't be traded; he's owed too much money for any team to take on, and the Phillies have an almost ironclad policy against absorbing/including salary in trades.
With Howard locked in at first base through at least the next four seasons, any opportunities for Ruf to get there will be minimal.
Before committing to Ruf playing left field for any length of time, the Phillies are going to want to know he can fully play the position.
This is a club that has put a significant emphasis on defense during its run of greatness, and it’s no coincidence that in 2012 they had both their worst record and poorest fielding team in a long time.
True, the Phillies won their two championships with guys (Pat Burrell and Greg Luzinski) who were arguably slower and less athletic than Ruf currently is. But look at the talent that surrounded them.
When The Bull played left field for the Phillies, he was surrounded in center field, third base and shortstop by three of the best defensive players to ever play the game. That trio was more than capable of making up for any defensive laps by Luzinski. And Burrell was just as lucky. While the names surrounding him were not Schmidt, Bowa and Maddox, the Phillies had gold-glove caliber players all over the diamond.
Even if Ruf’s bat forces them to at least think about bringing him north, he’ll have to prove he’s not a liability in the field. With their pitching staff, the Phillies are just as concerned—if not more—with preventing runs rather than scoring them.
Darin Ruf appears to have a strong future in Philadelphia. If the choice were mine, I’d throw him into the fire and see how he does to start the season. With his showings in 2012 it seems he could be that dominant right-handed bat that the Phillies have lacked for a long time now.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the Phillies, with their current management team, giving him that opportunity. At least not at the start of the season.
The powers that be will want him to spend time in Triple A (a place he has never played) for “more seasoning.” (The Phillies seem to love that term almost as much as Andy Reid loves saying “We need to get better as a football team”).
Even though barely-out-of-high-school players like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have shown what young players can do if given the chance, the Phillies will wait as long as possible—perhaps until the All-Star break—to find out if Domonic Brown can play. And if everyone (or almost everyone) who missed significant chunks of the 2012 season due to injury is able to return to form, the Phillies will have no need to “rush” 26-year-old Ruf.
Final Analysis: Ruf comes to spring training and plays well, is disappointed to be optioned to Lehigh Valley, but ends up forcing their hand and returns to the Phillies lineup for good in June, replacing the lackluster play of the Mayberry/Nix combination in left field.