Third base has been something of a problem for the Atlanta Braves for a long time. Over the last several seasons, the Braves have used a myriad of players in an attempt to cobble together league-average production at the position but, for the most part, that has failed.
Yes, there were flashes of brilliance in 2017 from Johan Camargo and occasionally impressive play from the likes of Juan Uribe, Adonis Garcia and others prior to that. Still, the last time the Braves received even two-win production from a third baseman was Chris Johnson in 2013 and it took a .394 BABIP to do it.
Before that? Um, well, it was Chipper Jones.
It’s been a while.
As a result of those struggles, there is seemingly a never-ending discussion about what happens next at third base and that brings us to Rio Ruiz. The 23-year-old has only 113 plate appearances under his belt at the Major League level and, while there have been encouraging signs, Ruiz hasn’t lit the world on fire.
With that said, manager Brian Snitker (rightly) indicated earlier this week that Ruiz will essentially serve as the team’s everyday third baseman for September. There will almost certainly be an appearance or two from Johan Camargo (or even Adonis Garcia) but Snitker’s comments read as an endorsement of giving Ruiz a chance... for three weeks.
That is a move that makes a tremendous amount of sense but it begs the question of whether anything Ruiz could do in September would be enough to convince the front office to ride with him in a full-time capacity for 2018. Ruiz’s production has been very strong in the minor leagues as a whole and, for the most part, he has operated as one of the youngest players at every level he has reached.
Still, there is one overarching question mark and that is his ability to succeed against left-handed pitching. In 2017 across AAA and the majors, Ruiz came to the plate against a left-hander on 126 occasions. In those plate appearances, he posted an unsightly slash line of .223/.302/.348 and, even with small sample size caveats, that doesn’t inspire confidence.
In 2016, the numbers were even worse. Ruiz accumulated 133 plate appearances (across levels) against left-handers and his OPS sunk to .522 with a seemingly impossible .229 slugging percentage. The youngster’s performance was (slightly) more encouraging in 2015 but, well, you get the point.
At this juncture, Ruiz has given little to no indication that he can hold up against Major League pitching from the left side of the rubber. Is that a full-blown indictment long-term? Potentially not but, in the same breath, it seems far-fetched to think that even a strong showing in September could assuage concerns.
The best way to evaluate Ruiz, of course, is to allow him to regularly face left-handed pitching and that is what is encouraging about the decision to deploy him regularly down the stretch. With that on the table, there is enough scouting buzz that it would take a herculean effort to override it in a small sample, opening the door for a potential platoon with either Camargo or (gulp) Garcia to begin 2018.
Is a firmly entrenched platoon the best course of action if the development of Ruiz (and even Camargo) is the priority? Absolutely not. That goes back to the previous notion about learning and growth that can only come with on-field experience. However, there is every indication that Atlanta’s leash is getting shorter on the rebuild and, if the organization does not have full confidence in Ruiz being able to at least hold his own against left-handed pitching, it seems unlikely that a full-time role would follow.
Rio Ruiz can handle himself defensively and, at least to this point, has been able to mash right-handed pitching with regularity. When discussing 2018, though, the Braves might be better off deploying him in a platoon, or at least something resembling one, if winning on a parallel path to the rebuild is the priority.