July 08, 2004

Lieberthal or bust: Philly's catching void

When it comes to player development, no position has been mishandled by the Phillies more than catcher.

On Tuesday, Mike Lieberthal hinted at retiring after the ’05 or ’06 season. It turned out, he wasn’t serious. But it raises a question of concern: If something happened to Lieberthal, what would the Phillies do?

The answer is: They’d be totally sunk.

Regardless of how he’s pitching now, in trading for Millwood, they seized on a rare opportunity to grab a potential No. 1 starter that most teams would have done in a heartbeat. But in doing so, they gambled away an ever rarer commodity in Johnny Estrada, a young catcher who can hit for power and average, who’s making his first trip to the All-Star Game next week and is probably the best catcher in the National League.

Way to go, Phillies.

So it turned out that Atlanta, once again, got the best of them, this time in a rare inter-division trade. Nobody, not Ed Wade, not the Braves front office, saw it coming this way.

But the Phils should have had known that Lieberthal wouldn’t be their catcher forever. But that’s precisely what they assumed, and the void between Lieberthal and Oscar Villamar in the Venezuelan Summer League is all the proof you need.

Current backup Todd Pratt is a good soldier. Given the opportunity, he’d resign with the Phillies for the rest of his life. But a young catcher – it would have been Estrada – should have been inserted into the backup role last season to challenge Lieberthal, whose production numbers are starting to drop.

So the road is wide open for a catching prospect to step up, and there is a darkhorse in all of this. His name is Carlos Ruiz and he’s playing in Reading. Since taking over most of the catching duties, he’s batting .282 with 9 homers and .500 slugging.

So what, right? Well, because the road is so wide open, don’t be surprised if Ruiz sneaks into the bigs, Nick Punto-style, even before more celebrated players like Gavin Floyd or Ryan Howard.

But smart money is still on Pratt returning yet again next season. And maybe the year after that. And after that.

Former Phillie Johnny Estrada will be making his first of many trips to the All-Star Game for the Atlanta Braves.


At 2:52 PM, Blogger will travel said...

leiberthal continues to be one of the worst hitters in all baseball with runners in scoring position. I agree they have a problem behind the plate.


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