Expectations were low for the Orioles entering the 2020 season, and a 13-2 loss to Boston on Opening Day seemed to really hammer the point home. Fortunately, Baltimore responded with back-to-back victories to clinch its first series win of the season. The story, aside from panic and confusion in Boston, revolved around the Orioles hot-hitting third baseman.
Rio Ruiz laced a ball 102 MPH out of the ballpark in the top of the first that Sunday. The two-run shot gave Baltimore an early lead, and put the club in prime position to win the series. Ruiz stole the show with a more aggressive swing that resulted in better contact.
After slashing .232/.306/.376 over 127 games the year prior, Ruiz entered 2020 looking to prove he belonged in the lineup. He won the starting job at third essentially by default, but there was no guarantee the left-handed-hitter could stick with the rebuilding club. Ruiz made a strong first impression for the year.
Ruiz slashed .300/.333/.750 through five July games. He blasted three home runs and posted a 1.083 OPS through that first week. Unfortunately, his hot streak cooled in the month of August.
Ruiz tallied only three homers through his next 23 games, and only three more in 26 games between September and October. He batted only .165 that August before a more appropriate .256 in the final two months. Ruiz finished with a .222 average, .286 OBP and a .427 slugging percentage when all was said and done.
It can be difficult to judge any player in a short season, but Ruiz’s 204 plate appearances were good for third on the team. So if you’re going to measure anyone’s performance, Ruiz had a legitimate opportunity to prove himself.
Ruiz tied Anthony Santander for the team lead in RBIs with 32— though Santander posted the number in far fewer games. The California native finished one home run short of double digits, and his 25 runs scored led to a .6 WAR for the year.
There is an argument to be made that Ruiz took a step forward just by showing he could play every day at third base. There was the occasional web gem, including this diving stop and skipping toss to second base.
The Orioles did not really have a backup plan at third base. Hanser Alberto made a few spot starts, and Baltimore would have used a utility man if necessary, but Ruiz was certainly Plan A.
There really is not a reason to believe next season will be any different. Rylan Bannon could eventually show up and compete for time at third, and Alberto could handle the hot corner if the O’s retain him, but Ruiz will likely be the guy.
The Orioles could sign a low-cost veteran to play third like they did with José Iglesias at short, but recent budget talk across the league makes it seem unlikely that Baltimore will stretch the wallet at all. At this point, O’s fans are better off hoping Baltimore simply offers a contract to all of their arbitration eligible players.
Speaking of arbitration, Ruiz will be eligible in 2022. Like many of his teammates, he will enter next season looking to secure a future with Baltimore. A breakout year, or even a more consistent one, could lead to Ruiz locking up the spot moving forward.
Bannon and Tyler Nevin are the two highest third basemen in the O’s system, and neither rank among the club’s top 20 prospects. The Orioles have acquired several shortstop prospects who could eventually move to third, but the top youngsters appear to be multiple years away.
Today, Ruiz is the starting third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. Could that change before Opening Day? Absolutely. The 26-year-old will be given an opportunity to transform from a default option to a building block this season. Will he be a part of the next winning ball club in Baltimore? His performance will go a long way toward answering that question.