M’s Acquire Ruiz, Improve Catcher Depth

Jerry Dipoto didn’t bother to wait for Chicago’s World Series celebration to die down before making his first deal of the Hot Stove season. According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, the second-year general manager of the Seattle Mariners added depth behind the plate and veteran leadership in his clubhouse by acquiring Carlos Ruiz from the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Andy McCullough of the LA Times reports of the LA Times the Dodgers will receive reliever Vidal Nuno.

The left-handed Nuno had been a versatile arm for Seattle since being acquired along with Mark Trumbo in May 2015. The southpaw registered a 3.85 earned run average (ERA) during 87 appearances, including 11 starts. But, his future value to Mariners wasn’t greater than his potential 2017 salary.

MLB Trade Rumors estimates Nuno will earn $1.1 million through arbitration. That would represent a 100-percent pay increase for a middle reliever not normally used in high-leverage situations last season. With so many needs to address this offseason, retaining the 29-year-old would’ve reduced the club’s payroll flexibility.

Although the deal has yet to be confirmed by the club, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Seattle would be looking to add a catcher. In the past week, they’ve initiated steps to part ways with three backstops on their 40-man roster. They didn’t exercise the option of Opening Day starter Chris Iannetta, designated former first round draft pick Steve Baron for assignment, and outrighted Steve Clevenger to Class-AAA Tacoma.

When the dust settled, the Mariners were left with just two catchers on their 40-man roster — current starter Mike Zunino and the light-hitting Jesus Sucre. That’s where Ruiz comes into the picture.

Adding the 37-year-old won’t help Dipoto achieve his goal of having a younger roster entering next season. But, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to reduce the average age of his position players from a league-leading 30.4 years-old by Opening Day. In this case, landing a veteran presence behind Zunino was more crucial than a youth movement.

As I noted last week, finding a reserve backstop with average or better defensive skills would likely be the club’s preference. Ruiz certainly fits that description. His 26.1 defensive runs above average (DEF) using the FanGraphs calculation ranks number-nine among catchers with 2,000 or more innings since 2014.

Offensively, Ruiz isn’t a deep threat. But, he’s adept at reaching base — a trait Dipoto values. The 11-year veteran had a combined .365 on-base percentage with the Philadelphia Phillies and Dodgers last season. In fact, the right–handed hitter ranks eighth in OBP among catchers with 900 or more plate appearances since 2014.

Top-10 Catchers in OBP (2014-2016)
Rk Player OBP PA Age G HR BA SLG OPS
1 Francisco Cervelli .372 1065 28-30 280 10 .285 .378 .750
2 Buster Posey .368 1842 27-29 443 55 .306 .465 .833
3 Jonathan Lucroy .355 1614 28-30 398 44 .288 .458 .812
4 Russell Martin .354 1502 31-33 377 54 .252 .428 .782
5 Yasmani Grandal .340 1326 25-27 369 58 .229 .428 .767
6 Yadier Molina .335 1556 31-33 393 19 .288 .389 .724
7 Miguel Montero .334 1247 30-32 335 36 .239 .380 .713
8 Carlos Ruiz .333 998 35-37 258 11 .241 .337 .670
9 Chris Iannetta .325 1028 31-33 294 24 .218 .353 .678
10 Stephen Vogt .322 1330 29-31 357 41 .261 .425 .747
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/6/2016.

Ruiz also possesses two intangibles that shouldn’t be overlooked — his reputation as a clubhouse leader and playoff experience. During his 11-year career, he’s performed on the biggest stage and been a battery mate to an impressive array of elite starters including Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Clayton Kershaw. Now, he’ll have the opportunity to work with Seattle’s own King — Felix Hernandez.

Financially, adding Ruiz doesn’t represent a significant change in payroll earmarked for catchers. The newest Mariner is set to make $4.5 million next season — just $250 thousand more than what Iannetta would’ve received if his option had been picked up. Although a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t in place yet, it’s reasonable to expect Zunino — a pre-arbitration player — will earn in the neighborhood of $550 thousand next year.

Essentially, Ruiz is the veteran replacement for Iannetta. Team management has repeatedly praised Zunino for the results he put forth during his career reboot last season. Nevertheless, adding a reliable backup provides insurance in the event Zunino was lost to injury or takes a step backwards in 2017. Ruiz wouldn’t necessarily be the permanent solution, but he could serve as a stopgap until Dipoto found a better option.

What this trade means for Sucre is unclear at the moment, but his roster position has to be at risk due to financial reasons. MLB Trade Rumors estimates he’s in line to make $600 thousand in arbitration, which would be more than Zunino — the club’s starter.

Two things are certain with the Ruiz deal. Dipoto caused two positive by acquiring a good option to spell his starting catcher and slightly improving his payroll flexibility. More deals of this nature are likely to happen during the offseason. Perhaps, Tom Wilhelmsen will be the next player facing this fate.

“The Bartender” projects to make $3.8 million in arbitration, which is just $200 thousand less than the salary of Opening Day closer Steve Cishek for last season. Unless a deal can struck between both parties, it’s possible the fan-favorite will be moved in a deal — as he was last offseason — or be non-tendered.

Before assessing the Ruiz deal, it’s important to remember that it’s only November 7. Until the Mariners depart Spring Training, it’s tough to appreciate the impact of any single deal, although it’s fun to discuss them individually. As of now, all that’s known is Zunino and Ruiz are the club’s primary catchers, the position is stronger than it was yesterday, and the Hot Stove has been ignited by Dipoto.

Once again, it’s going to be fun offseason in Seattle.

About the author

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team.

You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins