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September 5 2006

The Phillies came into 2006 with positional weaknesses at third base and catcher and it didn't look like they had a whole lot on the horizon at either position.  Most of the way through the 2006 season, Coste and Ruiz have done enough to make it clear where the real challenge lies for 2007.

Third base has been an absolute disaster.  The Phillies traded away David Bell, who was among the worst everyday players in all of baseball last season, and managed to replace him with someone who has produced even less offensively in Abraham Nunez.  In the National League only the Padres have gotten less offensive production out of their third basemen than the Phillies.  San Diego acquired slugging strikeer-outerer Russell Branyan on August 24 to play third and offer relief to the ineffective Mark Bellhorn and Geoff Blum -- a bazillion strikeouts or not, he seems likely to way outproduce Nunez the rest of the way and allow the Padres to pass the Phils in third base production before the end of the year.  No team in either league has gotten fewer extra-base hits from their third basemen than the Phils.

Catcher seems like it's been another story.  The four-header monster of Fasano, Lieberthal, Coste and Ruiz has managed to be in the middle of the pack in terms of offensive production for the position.  If you use OPS as the standard for offensive production, in 2006 the Phillies have gotten the eighth-most production of the 16 NL teams from their catchers and more offense from any team in their division except the Braves.  Here's a look at the combined numbers for the players who have appeared at catcher for the teams of the NL East.


Offensive Production at Catcher, 2006

ATL 499 301 357 485 842
PHI 497 274 320 431 750
NYM 561 291 342 398 739
FLA 490 257 302 402 704
WAS 487 240 309 343 652

The seemingly surprising thing is the suggestion that the Phillies have gotten more offense out of their catchers than the Mets have out of theirs, mainly Paul LoDuca and Ramon Castro.  LoDuca has hit 314/352/421 in 447 at-bats for the Mets while Castro has gone 239/328/368 in 117.  The reason why the Phillies come out on top if you go by OPS is the slugging -- while playing catcher, Lieberthal, Coste, Fasano and Ruiz have combined to out-homer the Mets catchers 17-7 despite hitting for a lower average and getting on base less.

This all seems like good news.  If it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy you might just want to stop here. 

In 2005, Phillies catchers produced slightly better offensively than they have in 2006.  Mike Lieberthal (263/336/418 in 392 at-bats) and Todd Pratt (251/332/394 in 175 at-bats) did the bulk of the work and Phils catchers combined to hit 262/338/415 in 562 at-bats, an OPS that was slightly better than the catchers so far this year, fifth best in the National League and better than every other team in the league except the Mets. 

Much of the damage this year can be blamed on Sal Fasano, forced into far more duty than he should have been.  Overall for the Phillies he hit 243/284/386 in 140 at-bats, including a wretched 234/255/383 against righties.  Carlos Ruiz has also been terrible in 47 at-bats, hitting 191/235/255.  As bad as those guys have been, Coste and Lieberthal have produced far more than most would have expected.  Lieberthal is at 270/317/439 in 189 at-bats while Coste has torn it up, hitting 331/376/504 in 139 at-bats.

So what's the plan for next year?  No idea.  What I hope it's not is that Chris Coste will hit .331.  He won't.  He can help the team and I hope the Phillies try to bring him back again next year, but I don't think there's anyone who thinks he can be the primary guy in 2007.  Ruiz absolutely tore it up at Triple-A this year with the bat, and he's looked good behind the plate for much of the year as well when he wasn't throwing a bunt into left field to help lose a game.  He hasn't done enough at the major league level yet to make you feel comfortable about relying on him next season either.  You could try to bring Lieberthal back for one more year, but I don't think it's going to happen.  Even if it does, will the Phillies use three roster spots for their catchers?  They shouldn't.  The bottom line, I think, is that the Phillies are going to need to bring in yet another guy for next season.  And he's going to play a lot.

The bigger question, though, is how big a problem is it?  If the Phillies finished '05 with the fifth-most production in the league from their catchers and go on to finish '06 with the eighth-most production in the league from their catchers, it's a problem.  They won't, though.  Fasano is gone.  Ruiz is going to get better, even this year.  Coste isn't going to keep hitting like he has, but between him and Lieberthal they should be able to improve the numbers given all the damage that Fasano did while forced to play regularly.

The answer is that it's a big problem, but nothing compared to the hot corner.  It never was.  Abraham Nunez is going to play a lot for the rest of the year, and he's not going to do anything other than make the Phillies one of the worst, if not the worst, in the National League at third base.  While at catcher next year you know you may have Coste and Ruiz, at third base you have nothing.  Nunez will be back, but he's a guy who is a nice utility player with a career-slugging percentage of .317.

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