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With hot start, Rio Ruiz building on strong finish to season

Sure, it’s early, and spring training stats are never a safe gauge for how a player will perform during the season. But Ruiz’s impressive first few games are a good sign considering how he finished 2019.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the best story of the spring so far for the Orioles? It’s hard to go with anything besides Chris Davis turning the clock back at the plate. No one expects it to last, but hearing about Davis going deep every day like it’s 2013 all over again is pretty fun, however fleeting it might be.

A close second — and one that could carry more weight as an indicator of what may lie ahead — is the red-hot start Rio Ruiz has been enjoying so far.

Ruiz has only played five games, but those five games have been pretty impressive. Ruiz has had 15 at-bats and gathered 10 hits for a .667 batting average, with two doubles, a home run and a 1.625 OPS mixed in with those stats.

This is a good sign going into this season for Ruiz. No, he’s not going to hit for a high average just because he has in a handful of games in Florida.

What this is is a little more evidence that he was onto something at the end of last season.

Ruiz was sent down to the minors last season after a July 24 loss to Arizona. He was batting .238 with a .640 OPS and only five home runs in 260 at-bats. That translates to 11.5 home runs over 600 at-bats (we’ll call that a full season, for argument’s sake. Trey Mancini had 602 last year).

After five games in the minor leagues, Ruiz came back and had a different experience at the plate. He still struggled in the batting average department, hitting .218, but had a 180-degree turnaround with his power numbers. He hit seven home runs in only 110 at-bats, had an OPS of .779, and saw his slugging go from .335 to .473. Over 600 at-bats, he would have hit 38.2 home runs.

So that was a great development for the now-25-year-old. The question was whether it was just a fluke, or whether Ruiz had tapped some extra gear to his power hitting.

That’s why his start to the spring has to be encouraging if you’re an Orioles fan. The average is obviously untenable, but if Ruiz is showing power out of the gate, that’s a good indication that he can pick up where he left off once the real season begins.

And if he can, Ruiz just might be the player to beat at one of the Orioles’ shakier spots in the field.

While the up-the-middle defense is pretty much accounted for with Jose Iglesias and Hanser Alberto, the corners are more of a guessing game. Between first and third base, homes need to be found for Ruiz, Davis, Renato Nunez, Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle (if he makes the team).

You’ve got to think the Orioles are at least going to give Davis a shot at first to start the season, and if that means Mancini in right field and Nunez at designated hitter, then either Ruiz plays at third and a touted prospect in Mountcastle sits, or Mountcastle plays a position he barely played last season (assuming the Orioles still consider Mountcastle at third to be an option).

If Mountcastle is at DH and Mancini is in the outfield or vice versa, then the Orioles sit their home run leader in Nunez. It’s a logjam however you slice it.

If the expected happens and Davis again can’t amount to anything besides a part-time player, then things become simpler with four positions being open to four players (unless Dilson Herrera plays himself into the mix). But all roads lead to the same conclusion: there’s a spot there for Ruiz if he can prove he deserves it.

If the power he showed over the last two months of the season returns — and the average comes up a few notches — then Ruiz deserves to be the front-runner for the job. He’s an above-average fielder, and the Orioles should be more than happy if they’re getting a .750 OPS from him at the plate.

He hasn’t proven yet that he’s going to be that type of hitter, but starting the spring the way he has doesn’t hurt. He homered and doubled in Sunday’s game against the Phillies, and both went the opposite way. Maybe in addition to finding some power at the plate, he’s gained some plate discipline as well?

Eh, that’s a lot to infer from five games. But nevertheless, it’s five games that suggest Ruiz is on the right track.