In June 2012, current Orioles general manager Mike Elias was a key contributor to what was a strong draft for the Houston Astros. It was one that got them shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. for their first two picks.
Houston’s fifth pick in that 2012 draft was a California high school infielder named Rio Ruiz. He played for the Astros until they traded him to Atlanta in January 2015. During the Winter Meetings this December, the Orioles claimed Ruiz on waivers from Atlanta.
After getting 195 plate appearances with Atlanta since 2016, with 173 coming in 2017, Ruiz will head to spring training soon to try to impress Elias again, hoping to win a job when the Orioles head north for opening day.
At Triple-A Gwinnett in 2018, Ruiz started 49 games at third base, 33 at first, 19 in left field and 11 in right field. He’s made 42 career big league starts at third base, with 40 coming in 2017 for the Braves.
He could battle Renato Núñez for playing time at third base, be part of a platoon at third or use his versatility to try to earn a job as a reserve for his new team.
“Definitely looking forward to it and have to make the most of it,” the 24-year-old Ruiz said at FanFest. “Just go out and be myself. I think I learned that from the first experience I had with Atlanta. I tried to do too much, and things didn’t go my way. Just have to be myself.”
In Triple-A last season, the lefty-batting Ruiz hit .269/.322/.390 with 25 doubles, four triples, nine homers, 72 RBIs and an OPS of .711. He went 1-for-12 in the bigs with the Braves. In his big league career he’s hit .189/.282/.302. In 776 career games on the farm, he’s hit .263/.344/.404.
“Just overall, I’m going to grind things out. I’m going to grind at-bats out,” Ruiz said. “I’m going to get the knocks that are needed. With guys on base, I’m not going to try and hit a three-run home run. The team is fine with one run batted in and the next guy comes up.”
He added that his previous time in Houston with Elias is important to him, but won’t help him make the 2019 Orioles if he doesn’t produce on the field.
“Definitely. Obviously, he drafted me and there is a level of comfort,” Ruiz said. “But he’s got his job to do and I’ve got mine. He’s got to put the best 25 people on the roster and take them north to start the season.”
Once a heavily recruited high school quarterback, Ruiz was part of a 2012 draft when Houston saved money on Correa, taken with the overall No. 1 pick, and used it on other players, including Ruiz. Correa’s slot amount was $7.2 million and he signed for $4.8 million. McCullers, taken No. 41, had a slot amount of $1.259 million and signed over slot at $2.5 million. Ruiz was drafted in the fourth round at No. 129 with a slot value of $360,200 for that pick. But he was signed to a bonus of $1.85 million, well over slot.
Five times he has been ranked among a club’s top 20 prospects by Baseball America, three times with Houston and twice with Atlanta. He was Houston’s No. 8 prospect at the end of the 2012 and 2014 seasons.
The Houston club clearly was a fan then. Now, years later, Ruiz will try to make it with the Orioles. In his brief time with this team, he was struck by something about the Orioles at FanFest.
“History. I sat down earlier and Brooks Robinson was right there. Just really looking forward to meeting those type of guys and picking their brains and learning from them. Continue to grow,” Ruiz said.
So how will it shake out in the infield for the Orioles coming out of spring training? Here is the list of infielders currently on the 40-man roster: Hanser Alberto, Chris Davis, Drew Jackson, Richie Martin, Núñez, Jack Reinheimer, Ruiz, Jonathan Villar and Steve Wilkerson. These players are non-roster infielders at spring training: Chris Bostick, Ryan Mountcastle, Jace Peterson and Zach Vincej.