We all know the plan in Atlanta. The Atlanta Braves have been rebuilding for the better part of three years now. Some of the pitching prospects they traded for already made their way to the big league club. Offensively, however, aside from Dansby Swanson, there hasn’t been much to note.
That’s where Rio Ruiz steps in. Or at least should.
The third base job is wide open at SunTrust Park. Adonis Garcia is now 32-years-old. He played outfield until his major league debut at the young age of 30, and has performed admirably as a place-holder. He is by no means the long-term answer.
While the power of Austin Riley may be more luring, Ruiz has been a better total package. The soon-to-be 23-year-old was amongst the first acquisitions of the John Hart Era, when he came over in the Evan Gattis deal. After a breakout 2015 for the Houston Astros High-A affiliate in Lancaster, he took a big step backwards in his Mississippi Braves debut.
Last season, he was able to bounce back in Gwinnett, slashing .271/.355/.400 with 10 home runs and 24 doubles. Most importantly he made continued strides to his ever-improving defense. He was rewarded with a call to The Show in September.
Ruiz didn’t provide much of a glimpse into his future when I saw him Wednesday night, but there were some promising takeaways.
Coming into the action, Ruiz was on a hot streak after a slow start to the season. He was hitting .318. Four of his seven hits went for extra bases, including all three of his home runs, and he added a stolen base over a seven-game stretch.
He has a pretty, fluid and big swing that seemingly invokes more power than Ruiz has yet to display. That being said, he does make contact. Ruiz’s issue has normally been that the contact is usually hit directly at somebody. This is once again evidenced in 2017 with a .277 BABIP.
One interesting note was reinforced by Atlanta Braves prospect analyst Benjamin Chase. In his preseason assessment of Ruiz, he noticed:
He gets the bat through the zone well, though he may tend to work a bit too much to the opposite field and could tap into more power in his swing by pulling the ball.
On Wednesday night Ruiz made very hard contact in his first three at bats. Ruiz, who bats left-handed, grounded out sharply to second base in his first at bat. His second at bat was what caught my eye. He worked the count, ripping three foul balls until he got a hold of one that went deep down the left field line, just missing a home run. His next at bat was a hard hit shot to center, showing that Chase’s analysis was correct.
Looking at his spray chart for the season, however, you’ll notice his three home runs have come to his pull side, crushing them over the right field wall. This also concurs with Chase’s assessment, especially when you look at last year’s numbers when nine of his ten home runs came to the pull side. The question that I couldn’t answer is why he doesn’t simply work the pull side more.
There isn't much to his approach. He invokes some Eric Davis to me, in the sense that he appears to be just hanging out at the plate. His stance isn't noticeably wide as his is near the back of the box. Nor does he take a big step toward the ball almost sliding towards it. He then unloads his big, uppercut swing.
Ruiz's biggest strength when he was younger was high walk rates and respectable strikeout rates. Those trends have reversed the past couple of seasons. Entering this season, he walked 12 percent of the time throughout his career. This season he is walking a mere 6.9 percent, and didn't take many pitches at all Wednesday night. That being said the Gwinnett Braves were facing Yonny Chirinos making his Triple-A debut and everyone seemed aggressive.
Ruiz is also striking out at a career-worst 23.5 percent of the time. Last season marked the first time since a 23-game run in Rookie ball back in 2012 that Ruiz struck out over 20 percent of the time. It is still early in the season, and two games without a strikeout will drop that, but you hope the rising strikeout rate isn't a trend.
So, with some struggles at the plate, Ruiz's quickest path to the bigs is defensively, and there, he is the superior option to any of the Braves choices. He nearly made a run saving play on a sharply hit Willy Adames grounder down the third base line. He played it seemingly perfectly and when he was fully extended in a dive, the ball mysteriously took a leap right over his glove. His defense isn't Gold Glove caliber yet, but he has shown steady improvement each year.
Most naysayers will tell you that Ruiz isn't ready for the big leagues. This may be true, but you have to look at the Braves depth chart. The Braves rolled the dice with a guy at third base who had never played there before, and it has turned out well enough. Would Ruiz hit worse than Garcia? That's highly doubtful. Is he going to play worse defense? That's almost a guaranteed improvement.
Is he going to struggle at the plate? Well, the answer to that is yes. But at this point, will those struggles right themselves in the minors, or is it time to hand the reigns over to Ruiz and see if he really could be an answer, or if all the eggs are now in the Riley basket.
With the Braves sinking further into the National League basement each week, you have to assume they will take an extended look at Ruiz at some point this season. Temper your expectations, but Ruiz has the tools to be a pleasant surprise.