Washington Signs Up for Eight More Years of Keibert Ruiz

Keibert Ruiz
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

If you had to guess which teams would be doling out eight-year deals this winter, the Nationals probably wouldn’t have made the top of your list. Yet on Friday evening, they came to terms on just that: an eight-year extension. The recipient, equally surprising: Keibert Ruiz. The pact is worth $50 million and comes with two club options that could keep the young catcher in Washington through 2032. Full financial terms of the contract have yet to be revealed, but it comes with a signing bonus and is reportedly front-loaded, giving Ruiz a substantial raise for the upcoming season.

In both length and value, this is one of the largest extensions ever given to a player with fewer than two years of service time. Other players to sign similarly large deals with such little MLB experience include Michael Harris II (this past August), Ke’Bryan Hayes (this past April), and Corbin Carroll (this past weekend). Harris and Hayes, though, had longer and/or better track records, and Carroll is an uber-prospect with superstar potential. Ruiz had a fine season in 2022, but he’s yet to demonstrate he can be more than an average player at the big league level.

Career WAR at Time of Extension
Player Games Played WAR WAR/162
Ke’Bryan Hayes 120 3.9 5.3
Michael Harris II 71 2.7 6.2
Corbin Carroll 32 1.4 7.1
Keibert Ruiz 143 2.1 2.4

Ruiz is also an unusual candidate for this kind of extension because of his position. Due to the everyday rigors and ever-present risk of injury from crouching behind the plate, catchers usually don’t receive long-term deals. It’s especially rare for a team to make such a long commitment to a catcher before he’s established his durability over a number of seasons; an eight-year deal for a 24-year-old catcher with only 143 games of MLB experience is unprecedented.

But all unusualness aside, it’s easy to see why this deal appealed to both parties. Ruiz, for his part, gets $50 million. That’s enough to buy 50 million songs on iTunes, spend 50,000 days at Disneyland, or pay Dr. Evil’s ransom 50 times over. It’s the kind of wealth that’s difficult to pass up, especially for a player who wasn’t offered an enormous bonus as an international free agent; he signed for $140,000 back in 2014.

On the other hand, ZiPS projects Ruiz will be worth 2.5 WAR in both his remaining pre-arb seasons; a player of that caliber would likely earn about $20 million over the next five years. Essentially, Ruiz sacrificed his first three years of free-agent eligibility in exchange for $30 million, give or take. That’s what a 32-year-old Christian Vázquez earned this winter coming off a 1.6-WAR season; a 29-year-old Ruiz would likely command more on the open market in 2028.

Ruiz is no fool; he knows he’s leaving money on the table. But $50 million is life-changing stuff, and there’s a lot that would still have to go right between now and 2028 for him to cash in big as a free agent, especially given the position he plays. I can’t blame the guy for taking the offer; I’d do the same myself.

As for the Nationals, the risk is relatively low. While they’ll be giving Ruiz a sizeable raise for his pre-arb years, they’ll also keep their costs down going forward. If Ruiz becomes a key member of their next great core, he’ll do so with a luxury tax salary of just $6.25 million and an actual salary that maxes out at $9 million. If that next great core never develops, Ruiz should be easily tradable thanks to the low AAV of his deal.

Though Ruiz has yet to prove he can be an everyday player on a contending team, his floor is already high. His carrying skill in the minors was an exceptional ability to put the ball in play, and he’s proved that he can make plenty of contact against MLB pitchers, too. In 537 career plate appearances, all since 2020 and most accumulated last year, he has a 6.7% walk rate and an 11.5% strikeout rate. Only six players (min. 500 PA) have a lower K%+B% in that same span, and only three — Luis Arraez, José Iglesias and Nick Madrigal – have a better wRC+. Granted, his 93 wRC+ is nothing to brag about, but it’s still above average for a backstop. And he can become a better hitter if he improves his plate discipline or develops his power. Even if he never reaches his ceiling, he won’t be a liability at the bottom of the batting order.

Ruiz’s defense, meanwhile, looks perfectly serviceable. Reports on his glove were mixed in his prospect days; our own Eric Longenhagen, in his 2021 writeup of Ruiz, called him a “skills over tools” backstop but also a “capable defender,” though he noted that he was higher on Ruiz’s framing than others. He was down, though, on Ruiz’s blocking, describing him as “a casual, low-effort ball-blocker who’d much rather rely on his hands to pick balls in the dirt than be mobile and throw his body in front of the baseball.” So it’s particularly encouraging that blocking now looks like Ruiz’s biggest strength in the majors, at least according to Statcast’s newest metric, Blocks Above Average:

Ruiz Behind the Plate
Framing Blocking Pop Time
23rd percentile 76th percentile 25th percentile
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In addition to his skills on the field, Ruiz has begun cultivating a reputation as a clubhouse leader. That’s an asset we don’t talk about much around these parts because it’s impossible to quantify, but it’s a skill clubs clearly value in their backstops. Manager Dave Martinez has praised Ruiz’s leadership skills, as has top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli. With all that in mind, it’s a pretty safe bet that Ruiz will remain a competent big league catcher throughout his deal. Even if he never takes another step forward, it would hardly be the end of the world to pay him $6.25 million a year through his age-32 season.

The Nationals and their fans don’t have much to look forward to in 2023. The team ranks in the bottom five in projected WAR (per our Depth Charts) at seven different positions and no higher than 23rd anywhere on the diamond. (As it happens, again per Depth Charts, the projected WAR leader for the Nationals in 2023 is… Keibert Ruiz.) Even worse, Washington is stuck in a highly competitive NL East, against which it went 17–59 (.224) last season. Our playoff odds: an uninspiring 0.0%.

The future looks brighter. The Nationals have five prospects on our 2023 Top 100 list: James Wood, Cavalli, Elijah Green, Brady House, and Robert Hassell III. Several players on their 40-man roster are recent graduates from prospect status, including Ruiz, CJ Abrams, Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, and Luis García. That’s a potential core to build on, and there should be plenty of payroll space to supplement the homegrown talent when the time is right. Whether the franchise’s eventual new ownership will be as willing to pay the luxury tax as the Lerner family was in the past is unclear, but right now, Washington is $100 million below the CBT threshold; there’s room to grow.

The upcoming season will be rough for the Nationals, but they clearly think they’ve found their catcher of the future and checked one box off of a long rebuilding list. As for Ruiz? He’s got 50 million iTunes tracks to buy.





Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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fjtorres
1 year ago

Clubhouse leadership might be hard to quantify in general but not so much for catchers since they have such extensive interactions with their pitchers, especially the starters. Things like talking over strategy, pitch utilization, pitch mechanics, are all part of a good catcher’s job to stay in synch with the pitcher. For a catcher good leadership might be as simple as being up to speed on each pitcher’s strengths and weakneses and buiding game calling off that or as complicated as being in effect an assistant pitching coach.

A young catcher that can do that is very valuable.
More so if he can stay healthy and priceless if he can hit, too.

Look at how teams like Houston and Cleveland prioritize their catchers. There’s no numbers for what they value most and they may not be great hitters but they do good work at extracting the best from most of their pitchers.

Something to keep an eye on: now that pitchers have the option of calling their pitches electronically, how many will choose to let their catcher do it.

Last edited 1 year ago by fjtorres
mariodegenzgz
1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

“Look at how teams like Houston and Cleveland prioritize their catchers. There’s no numbers for what they value most and they may not be great hitters but they do good work at extracting the best from most of their pitchers.”

Bingo. Catcher WAR has always been something I tend to dismiss, because trying to assess a catcher’s defensive impact from afar is just so flawed. So much of that value lies in pitch calling and in the confidence a catcher creates in a pitcher. It’s intangible stuff that can’t be measured unless you’re right there during bullpens, games and see them interact (and can read minds lol). If teams in the cutting edge of the analytical world are giving consistent ABs to catchers who clearly can’t hit, there’s a reason for that.

NATS Fanmember
1 year ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

sure, but Ruiz was our catcher all of last season and we were dead last in pitching in MLB. So, he does not inspire confidence for his intangibles in me yet cause nearly every pitcher got worse from the year before.
our starting pitching WAR was negative. Worst staff in like 100 years i believe i read. Some of that has to be the catcher.

Last edited 1 year ago by NATS Fan
Smiling Politelymember
1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

If you have a chance to acquire a catcher drafted by the Dodgers, you say YES

fjtorres
1 year ago

Santana turned out okay for Cleveland, even if he didn’t stay at C.
They also did okay trading with SD: Alomar and Hedges.