COMMENTARY | He was an All-Star and emerged as the team leader during an injury-riddled 2012 season for the Philadelphia Phillies. Before his own foot problems, he was having a career year, hitting .325 with 16 homers while rising from eighth to fourth in the batting order. No catcher in baseball is more respected for his ability to handle pitchers and manage games.
Still, Carlos Ruiz flies under the radar, something he's been used to in his seven years with the Phillies.
He's eligible to return for his eighth on Sunday after being suspended for 25 games for using a banned substance, reported to be the amphetamine Adderall. But no one in the media seems to see it as much of an elixir for the Phillies' early-season woes.
Perhaps that's understandable. In a season with a whole lot of ifs -- if Ryan Howard and Chase Utley can recapture past offensive production; if Roy Halladay can solve the puzzle that has been the command of his pitches in his strike zone; and if some young, unproven outfielders can emerge with standout seasons -- Carlos Ruiz comes back with some question marks of his own.
Can he repeat his offensive excellence of 2012?
Carlos Ruiz has become a beloved figure in Philadelphia, and he'll hear a warm chorus of "Chooch!!!" when he strolls up to the plate for the first time this season at Citizens Bank Park when the Phils return from a road trip May 2.
But we live in an era where any banned substance suspension will raise eyebrows. His numbers have improved since 2010, but last year he doubled the home run output of his best previous season. Coincidence? The Phillies certainly hope so as they desperately need a right-handed threat in the middle of their lineup.
Can he avoid the injury bug?
Chooch fought through plantar fasciitis as long as he could last season. He certainly knows the pains of being a major-league catcher. The thing is, Ruiz didn't reach the majors until he was 27. He's 34 now, an age when teams are looking for other positions for good-hitting catchers. Before the Phillies signed Michael Young, there had been talk of possibly moving Ruiz to third base.
Ruiz is one of many members of the core unit that led the Phillies through their glory years of 2007-11 who has battled injuries in recent years. But while Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have declined from their best seasons, Ruiz has been playing his best baseball. Clearly, the time is now to shine for all of these aging stars, particularly Ruiz and Utley, who are in the final years of their contracts.
Can he make a difference to the pitching staff?
This is easily the safest bet. Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee trust Carlos Ruiz completely. Even with their award-winning success and wealth of experience, they seem, at times, to have struggled to get a consistent rhythm with backup Erik Kratz. Halladay intimated as much after struggling through his first start of the season in Atlanta.
In fairness to Kratz, that pitcher-catcher comfort zone means a lot and Ruiz has established himself in the Phillies' finest hours since 2007. When Halladay threw his perfect game against the then-Florida Marlins in May 2010, he admitted following Ruiz's pitch choices from the sixth inning on.
So, yes, Chooch's return should make a noticeable difference.
Can Chooch lift the Phillies?
If Carlos Ruiz is still the Carlos Ruiz of last season, he should provide a spark the Phillies' offense has been lacking. But in terms of the Phils' hopes and needs over the long term, it's important to remember that as good as Chooch might be with the bat, he's not Johnny Bench.
Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime Phillies follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards. He covered the 1980 World Series, the first championship in Phillies history.
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