SARASOTA, Fla. – As a former two-sport star athlete at a prominent Los Angeles area high school, Rio Ruiz accustomed to success and accolades. But the Braves third-base prospect struggled mightily last season in Double-A ball, and it might’ve been the best thing for him.
Braves president of baseball operations John Hart thinks so, after seeing Ruiz, 21, come to his second major league spring training mentally and physically stronger.
Hart says Ruiz “took ownership of his career” after the Braves told him at the fall Instructional League that he get in better shape and come to spring training ready to progress. It’s been apparent to Braves coaches and officials that Ruiz, who had two hits in the Grapefruit League opener Tuesday, listened and responded well.
“The bat — there’s some strength there,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who brought Ruiz off the bench Tuesday after Adonis Garcia turned an ankle in the fourth inning (the injury wasn’t serious). “He’s still a work in progress at third base, but there’s a lot of improvement there, too. He made a couple of nice plays on slow rollers, one on the backhand.”
Ruiz is a little over 6 feet 2 and goes 230 pounds – the same weight he was at his first Braves camp a year ago, but with significantly more muscle and less body fat.
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“Just leaned up a little bit,” he said. “I’m already a big boy as it is, so it was a matter of, just kind of take initiative of my career, eat better, eat right, do all those things that a big leaguer would do. And that’s what I did this offseason.”
He did a lot more working out, lifting weights and conditioning under the supervision of the trainers at the state-of-the-art gym that his agent, Scott Boras, operates for his clients in Newport Beach, Calif.
“Before the (2015) season started, I didn’t have the offseason I wanted to have,” Ruiz said. “Just a lot of things going on at home. So this year it was a little more quiet at home and I was able to do what I had wanted to do. This offseason was really good. I’m really looking forward to this year. I talked to John Hart a little bit (in the fall) and they had some goals for me, as I did for myself. I’m glad I met those in the offseason, now it’s time to meet my season goals.”
A native of Covina, Calif., and a standout quarterback at Bishop Amat High — where he earned the splended nickname “Big River” — Ruiz turned down a football scholarship to Southern Cal to sign with the Houston Astros after being drafted in the fourth round in 2012.
He hit .260 with 33 doubles, 12 homers and a .766 OPS in low Single-A in 2013, then improved to .293 with 50 extra-base hits (11 homers), a .387 OBP and .823 OPS in high-A in 2014.
After coming to the Braves with pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Thurman in the January 2015 trade for Evan Gattis, Ruiz was assigned to Double-A Mississippi and had his worst season. He hit .233 with five homers, a career-high 94 strikeouts (in 489 plate appearances) and a career-low .657 OPS.
Ruiz said he learned a lot.
“Everything about last year was kind of an adjusting year for me,” he said. “I’m not making any excuses, because I know I’m way better than what my numbers showed last year. But this year’s a new year. Threw last year out the window, took what I learned, learned from everything that I did wrong, and hopefully can do better with what I did right last year.
“I feel like my defense was there all last year, it kept me in games and kept my head between the lines and not really focusing on my at-bats. So as long as I was able to do that and help my team win in any other aspect of the game, then I was good to go.”
Terry Pendleton, the Braves infield coach and former third baseman, has seen big differences in Ruiz this spring from a year ago.
“Maturity. He’s growing into a young man,” said Pendleton, who is also from L.A. and has gotten to know Ruiz. “His mindset is different. Last year it was kind of a nonchalant type thing. This year he’s on a mission. Major difference in him, the way he’s going about doing it.
“He was like a deer in the headlights last year. This year, like I said, he’s on a mission…. He’s a good kid.”