The Phillies made an aggressive strike today, agreeing to a three-year, $26MM contract with catcher Carlos Ruiz. From the point of view of Ruiz and agent Marc Kligman, this is a clear win and an offer they were unlikely to beat if they waited. I felt that with Ruiz turning 35 in January, a third guaranteed year was unattainable unless they made a major sacrifice on average annual value. However, the $8.67MM AAV is strong and in line with what some thought Ruiz might get on a two-year deal. I am surprised to see Ruiz top Russell Martin's deal from last winter in both years and AAV, especially since Martin was five years younger and coming off a better year. It's too early to say whether the Ruiz contract is an anomaly, a trend toward rising salaries for catchers, or even a sign that most of the top free agents will beat expectations.
The contract is acceptable for the Phillies in terms of dollars per wins above replacement, as Ruiz is still at least an average regular. Dollars per WAR isn't the right metric on which to judge a free agent contract, however, especially since the free agent market generally doesn't pay full price for catchers. How far beyond the runner-up did the Phillies go? Ideally, you'd only go a little bit beyond the runner-up, especially with a player who had a strong preference to remain in Philadelphia. According to ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Phillies guaranteed the third year and hiked the AAV to get the deal done with Ruiz. If the Phillies were the only team willing to guarantee three years, and it does seem that way, then a hardline stance would have been with a reduced AAV, perhaps around $7.5MM. Something like three years and $23MM was probably possible, which would have made the third year less painful since Ruiz might have approached $20MM on a two-year offer from the Red Sox, Rockies, Blue Jays, or Yankees eventually.
It's easy to say Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. should have played hardball with Ruiz to save $3-4MM, and that might have been possible. Still, Ruiz is worth more to the Phillies because of his familiarity with their pitching staff, and Amaro would have faced limited alternatives had he tried to wait Ruiz out. Brian McCann would have required a much larger commitment, and it appears Jarrod Saltalamacchia will get more than $30MM. McCann, Saltalamacchia, and A.J. Pierzynski all bat left-handed, and the Phillies likely sought a right-handed bat for lineup balance even after signing Marlon Byrd. That basically leaves Dioner Navarro, a switch-hitter who hasn't been a regular since 2009. The trade market is even more questionable, and the Phillies don't have good internal options at catcher. The Phillies paid a premium to lock up Ruiz this early in the offseason, but the contract is still acceptable. The Winter Meetings are still three weeks away, and Amaro has already addressed two major holes in his lineup.