LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It was 16 months ago here at Braves camp, during the fall Instructional League, when Braves president of baseball operations John Hart told third-base prospect Rio Ruiz that he needed to “take ownership of his career” and that he could start by getting in better shape.
“I mean, there’s no beating around the bush, I was fat,” Ruiz said last week, sitting in the Braves clubhouse at Champion Stadium, not far from where Hart had delivered that message to him as tactfully as possible after the 2015 season, a season in which he hit just .229 with five home runs and a .649 OPS in 126 games for Double-A Mississippi.
Ruiz, who weighed 240 pounds at that time, clearly got the message from Hart. He reported to spring training a year ago at 220 pounds, the weight not just reduced but redistributed, his upper body stronger and more defined. And as one of the youngest players in the Triple-A International League, he hit .271 with 10 home runs and a .355 OBP.
Rewarded with his first major league call-up in September, Ruiz went 2-for-7 with a triple in five games, including one start.
After the season ended, this time no one needed to convince Ruiz, 22, of the benefits of proper conditioning. The Los Angeles native returned to southern California and resumed the offseason regimen he followed the previous winter at the state-of-the-art Orange County training facility operated by his agent, Scott Boras.
But that wasn’t enough for Ruiz, who has become something of a workout maven. He complemented those weightlifting and agility workouts with a new speed-training program under the supervision of Azusa Pacific University track coach Kevin Reid.
“Sprint work, lot of running, getting off the line, explosiveness,” said Ruiz, who couldn’t have imagined doing those drills two years ago, but now keeps looking for more ways to get better.
Have we mentioned that he reported to spring training this year at 208 pounds?
“He should be commended for that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who was Ruiz’s manager at the beginning of the Triple-A season, and again when Ruiz got called up in September. “He had a real good year last year. He was probably one of the youngest guys in the International League and he was steady, solid. He worked on his body and he became faster, and he’s even leaner and stronger this year.
“He’s growing up. He’s a young kid who’s starting to mature, he keeps getting better. He’s not far off.”
Ruiz dropped more than 30 pounds in 16 months, and did it while getting not just quicker and faster, but stronger.
“I was pushing 240, and think I was playing myself as far as me thinking I was (strong),” he said. “Thinking (being) big was strong. But losing the weight, I became more flexible, more agile, and then I realized there’s still a lot left in there, when I really didn’t think there was.
“It’s amazing how much I found out I could do. … I feel great. I feel like I made tremendous strides as far as moving around the bag, going to cut balls off, getting good hops, helping the shortstop by covering ground in the hole so he can cover more ground up the middle. It’s done tremendous wonders for me so far and I’m just excited to see what else I can do.”
Ruiz came to Braves spring training more confident this year, ready to show what he can do and hopefully give Braves officials something to think about. They have Adonis Garcia back at third base this season and could have utility man Jace Peterson play plenty at the position. Ruiz is expected to begin the season back at Triple-A Gwinnett.
But if the Braves aren’t getting the production they want from third base, or in case of an injury, they believe now that Ruiz could be a viable option. And, perhaps most important, he believes.
“I think that if they recall me — whenever that might be, whether it’s out of spring (training) this year or a couple of months, April or May, whenever it might be — I feel like I can be an asset to the team,” Ruiz said. “But then again that’s not my decision, that’s the front office’s decision. All I can do is handle everything between the lines, and if my game allows them to make the decision to keep me on, then that’s what will happen. …
“I’ve learned a lot already (this spring). I’ve been here almost a week and a half now and been able to work with Wash (new infield coach Ron Washington). I mean, if you’re not awake, he’ll wake you up, let’s put it that way. He has so much energy, so much passion and love for the game. He just helps you and makes you want to be better.”