All-Star C Valle could continue Phils' legacy
READING, Pa. — At age 33, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz doesn’t quite have as many miles on the odometer as most backstops his age. But when the end comes for professional catchers, it comes quickly.
For instance, Johnny Bench was out of the game by age 35 and the same goes for Mike Lieberthal, who caught more games than any Phillie ever.
Still, if there is one position the Phillies have been very good at developing, it’s been at catcher. Since 1997 the Phillies have had just two regular catchers in Lieberthal and Ruiz. Take away the 1996 season where Benito Santiago spent a year in Philadelphia, and the Phillies have gone with homegrown catchers dating back to 1989 when Darren Daulton took over for Lance Parrish.
That’s three catchers for one organization covering 23 seasons, save for one.
Ideally, Ruiz will hold down the catching spot for the Phillies for a couple more seasons until Sebastian Valle is ready to take over. Though predicting the futures of minor leaguers—particularly catchers—is a difficult proposition, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Phillies have their next backstop working his way up at Double A Reading.
Valle was the starting catcher for the East Division in Wednesday night’s Eastern League All-Star Game at Reading’s First Energy Stadium, marking his fourth All-Star game in the past five seasons. In addition to getting the starting nod for Dusty Wathan’s squad -- Wathan himself was a one-time catching farmhand for the Phillies and son of longtime Kansas City catcher, John Wathan -- Valle was an All-Star in the Florida State League, South Atlantic League and New York-Penn League. He also played in last summer’s All-Star Futures game in Arizona.
All that’s left for Valle is the International League and National League.
Again, not an unreasonable prediction.
“We as an organization view him as a frontline catcher in the major leagues,” Wathan said. “When that is, all depends on Sebastian.”
According to Wathan, moving through the ranks to the big leagues is a simple formula. His defense will get him there, but it will be his offense that determines how long he will stay. Certainly some wondered if Ruiz would be able to hit enough to stay in the big leagues when he was climbing through the ranks. As a 23-year old catching for Single A Clearwater, Ruiz batted just .213 after a season where he hit .261 for Low A Lakewood.
Ten years later, Ruiz was batting .350 and playing in the major league All-Star game to represent the Phillies and the National League.
But if Ruiz is the template, then Valle is ahead of pace. Still just 21, Valle signed with the Phillies for $30,000 at age 16 out of Los Mochis, Mexico. He batted .284 in his first year as a pro and has been holding steady at the plate ever since. However, Valle is batting a career-low .246 through 65 games this season despite a .281 April and .291 June. His nine homers have him on pace to set a new career best, but his strikeouts (66 this season and 386 in 470 games) are a bit troublesome. That’s especially the case when his career .317 on-base percentage (just .267 this season) is factored in.
Still, defense is Valle’s ticket just as it was for Ruiz. Besides, there are plenty pieces of the game for the young catcher to work on.
“I think it’s just being out there, day-in and day-out. He just needs to be out there and be around the game,” Wathan said. “As far as calling a game and handling pitchers he’s outstanding, but there are always ways to get better. He has to learn the nuances of the game. He just hasn’t played a lot of baseball—he’s just 21 years old and to be that young at this level is something special.”
In Wednesday night’s game, Valle started and was behind the plate for the first five innings. His first time up, Valle was hit by a pitch and was thrown out attempting to steal on a botched hit-and-run. In the fourth inning he flied out to deep right field before exiting an inning later.
All-Star games have become old hat for the 21-year-old catcher. The big leagues are probably a couple years off, but if the accolades are an indicator, it seems pretty likely that Valle will continue the string of homegrown signal callers for the Phillies.
Wathan and Valle’s Eastern Division squad won Wednesday’s Eastern League midsummer classic, 5-4, thanks to a two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth spurred by Reading’s Troy Hanzawa.
With two outs and the game close to ending in a nine-inning tie, Hanzawa worked an eight-pitch walk and moved to third on a single by Trenton’s Kevin Mahoney. That set the table for Eric Campbell of the Mets’ affiliate in Binghamton to deliver the walk-off single that barely slipped through the hole between short and third.
Reading had eight players selected for the game with six players seeing action. Four of Wathan’s players were in the starting lineup, including second baseman Cesar Hernandez, first baseman Darin Ruf, leftfielder Leandro Castro and Valle. Hernandez, Ruf and Castro each had a hit and Hernandez and Ruf scored runs.
Reading reliever Jordan Whatcott pitched two-thirds of the ninth inning and notched a strikeout.
Mike McDade of the Blue Jays’ New Hampshire club went 4 for 4 and was slated to be the MVP until Campbell’s heroics. For the West, Erie's (Tigers) Jordan Lennerton slugged the game’s lone home run and had three RBIs.
Wednesday's tilt was the first All-Star game to be played in Reading since 1974.
E-mail John Finger at email@example.com