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Summer Is Coming; O's Need To Make A Decision On Ruiz

Much like general manager Mike Elias took a flier on third baseman Maikel Franco before the 2021 season, Elias took a flier on Rio Ruiz back in 2019.

That’s standard for a team in rebuild — add former top prospect from a respected organization (Atlanta Braves) and see if a change in scenery will do him well. Ruiz was among the group of prospects that included Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, the group that would return the Braves to contender status.

Instead, Ruiz flamed out after two bad major league stints in 2017 and 2018. In 72 games as a Brave, Ruiz slashed just .189/.282/.302.

Elias had every reason to claim Ruiz off waivers. Defense had never been an issue for Ruiz at a premium position. There was reason to believe the talent was still there at the plate, even if Ruiz hadn’t shown it for a lengthy period of time.

But through 212 games as an Oriole, I think it’s fair to say that the reclamation project is over. Ruiz isn’t going to be who people thought he could be.

Serious Struggles At The Plate

Since arriving in Baltimore, Ruiz’s offensive numbers are simply not adequate. His OPS over these last three years is .672, an improvement from his days in Atlanta but well below league average. His start to the 2021 season has been particularly poor, as Ruiz has slashed .161/.247/.299 for an OPS of .546 through 31 games.

Ruiz is struggling in just about every facet of the game. As of Thursday, Ruiz is sporting career Statcast lows in average exit velocity, xBA and xSLG. Ruiz’s barrel percentage is down three-and-a-half points from last season, which coincides with his career high 30 percent fly ball rate.

Those struggles are worse against non-fastballs. Against fastballs, Ruiz’s xBA is .224 and his xSLG is .369. When he sees offspeed and breaking balls, those numbers drop to .050/.000 and .142/.230, respectively. Ruiz has just one hit on a non-fastball all season.

Ruiz’s Defensive Presence

Ruiz provides value, but not at the plate. Manager Brandon Hyde surprisingly started Ruiz at second base to kick off this season, a move that’s worked out better than most expected. Ruiz isn’t a star there, but he gets the job done.

At second base, Ruiz has a zero outs above average rating, a metric used by Statcast to further break down a fielder’s defensive ability. He’s plus-1 at third base, his natural position.

Putting Ruiz at second base allows Brandon Hyde to put more bats in the lineup. It opens up third base for Franco, who is far more proven hitter than Ramon Urias, the man who would start at second base if Ruiz played third.

The issue lies in that Ruiz isn’t providing much more value as a hitter than Urias. Ruiz’s OPS is actually 55 percentage points lower than Urias’, albeit with different sample sizes. The disparity between Ruiz and Urias gets worse on defense — Urias’ outs above average at second base is plus-2. 

Summer Is Coming

Benching Ruiz for the time being seems like the only logical conclusion. Franco isn’t doing so hot at third base anyway, so you could split their playing time over there. But Ruiz isn’t justifying keeping himself in the lineup over Urias, who’s a better defender and at least this season, a better hitter.

Moving forward, Ruiz’s position in the organization is not safe. The Orioles are likely to promote Rylan Bannon and Richie Martin from Triple-A Norfolk at some point this summer. The same can be said for infielder Jahmai Jones. Bannon, who will be making his major league debut when that promotion comes, plays both second and third base. It’s hard to see how Ruiz wouldn’t be the odd man out in that situation.

When that happens, there’s no telling what will happen to Ruiz. Both Bannon and Martin are on the 40-man roster, so the Orioles wouldn’t need to clear a spot. However, it’s unclear if Ruiz has any minor league options left before needing to be designated for assignment. If Ruiz were designated, there’s a good chance he’d clear waivers anyway.

As a fellow 26-year-old, I appreciate Ruiz’s maturity and the veteran presence he provides in a clubhouse full of guys who are in their first or second seasons as major leaguers. But something has to give. Ruiz isn’t justifying his position on the roster right now, as his glove isn’t hiding his offensive struggles to the point where the status quo is tenable.

Elias, Hyde and the Orioles organization have a big decision looming this summer. How they handle Ruiz will shed light on how confident the O’s leadership is in their upper minor league roster.

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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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