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The jury’s still out on Rio Ruiz

He’s shown enough to remain intriguing, but can he turn into an everyday guy?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles
Take a breather, Rio. You just hit a triple.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Rio Ruiz is the guy your team picked up off that other team’s practice squad who impressed in preseason OTAs, earned a surprise spot on the 53-man roster and then, over the course of the season, ended up—OK, I’m not sure where this is going, and even if I were, I’m not sure I could tell you what’s in store for Rio Ruiz from here.

Ruiz certainly looks the complete package, and you can see why the 2012 fourth-round pick for the ‘Stros oozes MLB potential. But so far things haven’t come together for him. In four seasons between Houston, the Braves, and the Orioles, the 25-year-old lefty-batting third baseman has played in 199 games, over which time he’s hit .219/.298/.551 with 16 total dingers. Hardly Mike Troutian stuff.

And yet…?

Ruiz was once a Top-30 national prospect, making professional scouts “drool with anticipation” at his combination of speed, power and instincts as a 15-year-old out of Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, California (a school, by the way, that has produced a weird number of professional athletes: Dan Haren, Eric Bieniemy, Pat Haden, Mike Lamb, John Sciarra, and Michael Young). Though he’d verbally committed to play ball for the USC Trojans, he was considered a likely first-round pick after hitting .455 with three home runs and 35 RBIs in his junior year, not to mention doubling as Bishop Amat’s closer, with 18 strikeouts in 11 innings.

Then, Ruiz got some bad news. He’d been experiencing soreness and tingling in his right arm that soon worsened. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” Ruiz said. “My arm was swollen and burning. I was able to swing, but I couldn’t throw at all. My arm was dead. I could barely pick the ball up.”

Doctors eventually discovered a blood clot in his clavicle, near his right armpit. At first, they weren’t sure whether he would ever play again. Then, they told Ruiz that he’d play—but he’d have to have surgery and go on blood-thinning medication, and he’d miss the rest of his senior season. Being on the bench hurt Ruiz’s prospect status, and he ended up going to Houston in the fourth round in 2012.

He failed to make much of an impression at his new home, stringing together three decent seasons in Single-A and Double-A ball before getting traded to Atlanta as part of a package for Evan Gattis. He then spent three seasons with the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate, a .260-something hitter who got a few cups of coffee. Nothing more than that. The Braves waived him in the winter of 2018, and he was picked up by his old boss, Mike Elias—the first 40-man roster addition by the O’s new GM.

Ruiz made the team with a strong spring, and stayed there all season, except for one two-week stint with Bowie/Norfolk after his son, Luca James, was born. He had 413 plate appearances across 127 games and ended up with a slash line of .232./306/.376 with 12 home runs, 13 doubles, and an 81 OPS+.

Although his first half batting average (.235) didn’t materially differ from his second-half one (.227), he did seem to find his power later in the season, when his slugging percentage jumped from .328 (first half) to .462 (second). Here’s his month-to-month breakdown:

As before, the batting average stayed pretty flat, but the power numbers picked up. He hit five home runs before August, and seven after. His strikeouts also went down from a peak of 23 in 92 at bats in April/May to 10 in 72 at-bats in September/October.

These aren’t wow numbers, although Ruiz did show two tendencies that are interesting. One was his quietly being an even greater first-inning hitter than Trey Mancini: in 18 at-bats in the first inning, Ruiz had a .500/.571/.889 line (his next best: the fifth inning, where he hit .391/.472/.674). Bat this man higher in the lineup!

Second is that Rio is a very good hitter in high leverage situations.

It may be less than pure coincidence, then, that Ruiz rewarded the O’s long-suffering fans with one of their greatest moments of the season. On August 11, facing the mighty Astros, the Orioles were down 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner on. Rio turned on a changeup by Roberto Osuna (that one feels even better today) and sent it into the flag court. You can relive the fun here.

The glove hasn’t been an issue for Ruiz, and it continues not to be. In 843 innings at third, he put together a 1.8 UZR and saved the Orioles two runs.

Rio Ruiz continues to flash occasional power, and that and his reliable glove should earn him the presumptive starting job next spring. This will be a make or break season for him. He lost playing time this year to the dynamic combination of Hanser Alberto and Jonathan Villar. But with Villar likely to be moved in the offseason and shortstop Richie Martin probably starting the year in Norfolk, that logjam will be cleared up somewhat. In 2020, Ruiz will get a chance to finally settle doubts about his consistency at the plate: he has a clear path to the starting third baseman job, as long as he can hang onto it.