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Braves should open season with Rio Ruiz platooning at third

MLB: Atlanta Braves-Workouts Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Rio Ruiz came to camp last year looking to re-establish himself as a prospect. He had somewhat fallen off the radar after a poor 2015 campaign in Mississippi, and as others on the Braves’ prospect list ascended towards the top, he dropped.

Coming off an impressive 2016 with Gwinnett — at the age of 22, nonetheless — Ruiz is surging this spring. He’s now hitting .326 with an OPS of .838. He’s seeing extended time at third with Adonis Garcia recovering from a calf strain. And now the Braves have a pretty big roster decision to make.

Ruiz is far from a flash in the pan. Kiley McDaniels, then of FanGraphs and now with the Braves’ scouting department, ranked him the 43rd best prospect in MLB two winters ago. He was a early fourth round pick in 2012 and hit well with Houston before coming over in the Evan Gattis deal. He has since fallen off that prestigious ranking, of course. But after questions were raised about his athleticism and physique, Ruiz showed up to camp with a completely transformed body. He got serious.

"We were running as hard as I could," Ruiz told earlier this spring. "There would be times when I'd be lying on the track, just dazed and confused and totally out of it. [Reid] would say, 'OK, you're good,' and I would say, 'Nah, I've got more. I've got to do this.' So, I'd give myself a little more of a break and breathing time before finishing it. At the end, I was done. I'd almost fall asleep in my car before I'd start driving, but it was all worth it. I think my body feels as good as it has in a long time."

Ruiz hit .271/.355/.400 in 133 Triple-A games. He doubled his home run output (10) from 2015. He modestly upped his doubles and triples. He maintained a strong walk rate (11.9%), something he’s done at every level of the minors. His strikeout rate did increase to just under 22 percent, though not at a worrisome level. Perhaps most important, all reports indicated he improved defensively while cutting the numbers of errors committed.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m proclaiming Ruiz the next Chipper Jones. Ruiz probably isn’t even an every day player at this point. What he is, though, is an intriguing platoon option for Atlanta at third.

Before touching on this a bit more, it’s worth nothing Adonis Garcia deserves some credit for even getting here. He was a nobody when the Braves signed him from the Yankees in 2015; then 30 years old, Garcia was a career minor leaguer. Adonis struggled early on but turned in a strong second half of 2016 (109 wRC+) to get his numbers to a passable level. He ended the season with a 0.9 fWAR/0.2 bWAR over 134 games. He’s projected similar numbers for 2017.

Back to the debate at hand. Ruiz makes all the sense in the world to split time with Garcia. Let’s look at some numbers:

  • Garcia career vs. left-handed pitching: .310/.357/.472, 122 wRC+, 6.1 BB%, 14.6 K%
  • Garcia career vs. right-handed pitching: .260/.287/.414, 85 wRC+, 2.9 BB%, 17.7 K%

Unfortunately, we have little data on Ruiz against big league pitching. But in Triple-A last year:

  • Ruiz vs. right-handed pitching: .294/.375/.458, 128 wRC+ (approx.), 13.5 BB%, 22.4 K%
  • Ruiz vs. left-handed pitching: .203/.293/.229, 68 wRC+ (approx.), 11.8 BB%, 32.2 K%

Seems like a no-brainer, right? It allows Brian Snitker to get the most out of third base — those are pretty dramatic splits — while letting Ruiz get his feet wet without throwing him all the way in. It significantly bolsters the bench, too, with John Coppolella looking all over the place for bench help.

Now if the Braves want to argue that Ruiz needs to play every day in Triple-A and continue developing against lefties, so be it. I won’t argue that too much. He won’t turn 23 until May and there is no rush with him. That said, he has 1,000+ plate appearances and 260 games under his belt between Double- and Triple-A. It’s not as if he played well for a month after a promotion and is being handed the job now.

If the Braves are serious about contending in 2017, they should open the season with a Ruiz-Garcia platoon at third. It does nothing to mortgage the future, and they might just find their future third baseman along the way.

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