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Is Rio Ruiz really the Orioles best third baseman?

The incumbent at the hot corner could face internal competition throughout the 2020 season.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The Orioles and Rio Ruiz needed each other in 2019. The former was without a third baseman, and the latter had run out of chances with his previous club. It was a marriage of convenience. One that didn’t bear much fruit for either in their first year together.

Ruiz was manager Brandon Hyde’s preferred option at the hot corner for most of last summer. The 25-year-old’s 843 innings spent at the position were nearly 400 more than anyone else on the Orioles roster, and there were certainly some positives to takeaway.

The former waiver claim held his own in the field. His 3.2 defensive rating, 3.9 UZR/150 and 2 DRS weren’t otherworldly, but solid just the same. Ruiz was not hurting the Orioles with his glove, which could not be said for many of his teammates.

Also, in a season filled with mostly lows, Ruiz may have provided Orioles fans with the highlight of the year when he smacked a walk-off, two-run homer against Roberto Osuna and the Houston Astros in mid-August.

Ruiz also had his struggles. He slashed .232/.306/.376 with a .294 wOBA and 79 wRC+. Those are numbers that might be acceptable from a catcher or maybe a shortstop, but not a starting third baseman. Among players at the position with at least 350 plate appearances in 2019, Ruiz ranked in the bottom five in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, wRC+, wOBA and offensive rating. Things got so bad for Ruiz that he was demoted in late July.

With spring training less than a month away, Ruiz is expected to land in Sarasota as the Orioles’ starting third baseman once again. Hanser Alberto, Renato Nunez and Richard Urena are also on the 40-man roster, and each of them has major league experience at the position. But Alberto is likely to spend most of his time at second base, Nunez is a defensive disaster waiting to happen and Urena is more of a utility option than an everyday player. As it stands, there seems to be limited internal pressure on Ruiz, but that could change.

Ryan Mountcastle is nearly ready to make his MLB debut. The 36th overall pick in the 2015 draft is coming off of a Triple-A season in which he slashed .312/.344/.527 with a 117 wRC+, and he was just named to MLB Pipeline’s list of top 10 first base prospects. The Orioles are expected to send him back to Norfolk to begin the season with the hope that he will further refine his approach at the plate, cutting down on strikeouts and increasing walks. Once he’s done that there won’t be much more for the soon-to-be-23-year-old to learn down on the farm.

Mountcastle’s future defensive home remains in doubt. Having long since abandoned his original shortstop position, Mountcastle spent time at first base, third base and left field in 2019 with the Tides. There is even talk that the O’s anticipate giving him innings at second base and right field in the spring. The goal is to get his bat into the lineup without sacrificing much on defense.

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection forecasts Mountcastle as a 93 OPS+ hitter in 2020. Ruiz is expected to post 86 OPS+. In the accompanying blog post, Szymborski says the following about Mountcastle (emphasis mine):

Mountcastle’s Triple-A line only amounted to a wRC+ of 117, meaning he was essentially an average Triple-A first baseman. Average Triple-A first basemen don’t tend to crush it in the majors. Unless Mountcastle’s bat explodes this year, I’d be inclined to see if he can become halfway adequate at third base.

It is an interesting proposition. Could Mountcastle’s bat offset any shortcomings he may have with the glove, therefore making him a more valuable player than Ruiz? It is not as if the incumbent is a Gold Glove caliber defender, so the gap is not as vast as it could be.

Another young player who could make a run at the Orioles third base job some time soon is Rylan Bannon. The 23-year-old was one piece of the trade that sent Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2018 season. He followed up an uneasy debut in the O’s system with an impressive showing last season.

Bannon returned to Double-A Bowie to begin the year and posted a 120 wRC+ in 110 games, splitting time between second and third base. Then he moved to Triple-A Norfolk for a 20 game cameo to cap the season, where he also had a 120 wRC+.

The Xavier alum currently finds himself as the organization’s 24th-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. He receives 55 grades for both throwing arm and fielding, but his overview on the site says:

Bannon saw time at both second and third base in the Dodgers system, then played second almost exclusively after the trade. His average speed, actions and arm strength all profile better at the keystone, though it’s a bat-first profile regardless of where he lands on the defense spectrum.

Bannon was included in the ZiPS projection, where was given an 80 wRC+ and 0.1 WAR over 513 plate appearances in the big leagues. Those numbers aren’t encouraging, but they also shouldn’t be much of a deterrent considering he has just 20 total games above Double-A in his career.

The chance that Bannon actually makes it to the big leagues in 2020 feels remote. He is not on the 40-man roster, and the Orioles are unlikely to use up service time for young players sooner than they need to. But his performance in Triple-A this year will be something to closely follow.

The Orioles were one of the worst fielding teams in MLB last year. They have made moves to improve in 2020. Austin Hays will be an upgrade in center field all year, and Jose Iglesias will stabilize the middle infield. Swapping out Ruiz for Mountcastle, Bannon or anyone else currently in the organization would be antithetical. That doesn’t mean he is the team’s best option for third base, but he is the player that most closely aligns with their 2020 goals.