Braves’ Ruiz gets look at 1B, could increase value

Rio Ruiz wants to be a starting third baseman, but first and foremost at this point in his career, he wants to be on a major league roster.

So when the Braves brought up playing first base as a way of gaining some defensive versatility, they didn’t have to mention it twice.

“We’re all athletes here, and I think everyone can adjust if we have a couple of days or a couple of weeks for another position,” Ruiz said. “They didn’t say anything, they just asked me if I had a first baseman’s glove, and if I do, go over there.

“I didn’t ask a question, I just said, OK, I’ll go over there.”

The Braves also plan to have him work some in the outfield beginning next week, though manager Brian Snitker wasn’t sure  how much if any playing time Ruiz would get out there this spring with so many outfielders in camp.

It’s more about wanting to get him comfortable enough that he could be used there if needed, something that would increase Ruiz’s value and chances of making the opening-day roster.

He’s worked out at first base as well as third base in the opening week of full-squad workouts and will play first base in the Braves’ Grapefruit League opener Friday against the Mets at Port St. Lucie, Fla.

The Braves, of course, have a exceptional first baseman in Freddie Freeman, one of the better hitters in baseball and a guy who expects to play every game, or very close, as long as he’s not on the disabled list.

But if Freeman has to miss a few innings for a rest or a few games for an injury, the Braves want to have a quality backup. Their worst-case scenario is losing Freeman, their best player, to the DL, as they did in 2017 when a fastball broke his left wrist in May and he missed seven weeks.

The Braves were fortunate that Matt Adams was available on short notice in a trade from the Cardinals and provided big production while Freeman was on the DL. But they wouldn’t want to count on making such a deal again and would obviously prefer a backup candidate in-house, either on the major league team or at Triple-A Gwinnett.

Ruiz could be an option. Especially if he can play an outfield corner along with both infield corners.

“It’s in the best interests of the team to do it,” Ruiz said.

With the Braves planning to use a short (four-man) bench and extra relief pitcher, versatility is key for Braves backups and even some lineup regulars.

“He played (first base) some at Gwinnett before we called him back up in September, and did a good job,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “There’s a lot of these guys that we always talked last year about how, because of the four-man bench and everything, that they need to start exploring some other positions, just to make them more valuable. Just options that we’re going to look for because of the fact that we carry eight relievers.”

For Ruiz, who’s competing with Johan Camargo for the starting third base job this spring, being able to play other positions would increase the likelihood of a call-up if he starts the season at Gwinnett. It could also make him more attractive in a potential trade.

“Whatever gets me on the field, plain and simple,” he said. “If that means I’ve got to go somewhere else, then I’ll go somewhere else. And I’ll do what I can to be on the field, make the team opening day. But I have enough confidence in myself that I’ll be able to adjust to wherever they want to put me.”

His rookie season was a disappointment, as Ruiz batted just .193 with a .283 OBP, four homers and a .590 OPS in 173 plate appearances over 53 games. He did, however, have a career-best combined total of 20 home runs in 156 games (605 plate appearances) between Triple-A and the majors.

But after going 8-for-25 (.320) with an .873 OPS in his first eight games upon being called up May 18 when third baseman Adonis Garcia got hurt, Ruiz hit only .168 (21-for-125) with 33 strikeouts and a .534 OPS in his remaining 45 games, including 34 starts. He was sent down back down June 21 and wasn’t recalled until Sept. 1, after Brandon Phillips was traded.

“I was able to reflect on the season, put it in the past and learn from what I did,” Ruiz said. “Take the adjustments that I made and the ones I didn’t and make those adjustments in the offseason.”

The Los Angeles-area native worked out for the third consecutive winter at a state-of-the-art fitness facility operated by his agent, Scott Boras, in Orange County south of L.A. He also worked for the first time with hitting coach Doug Latta, the guru who runs a baseball training facility in Chatsworth, Calif., and is credited with helping the Dodgers’ Justin Turner greatly increase his power production the past four seasons with the Dodgers.

Latta emphasizes how a consistent swing path provides more plate coverage and loft on the ball. Ruiz believes adjustments made have him in a good place with his swing.

As for playing first base, Ruiz was a standout option quarterback and defensive back on his high school football team in L.A.; he’s a good enough athlete to not be intimidated moving across the diamond to field throws instead of making them, and learning to take grounders at different angles than what he’s used to at third base.

“Just the footwork,” he said of differences between the positions. “There’s a lot more footwork at first base. Not that there isn’t any at third base, but at first base there’s a lot of particulars that you’ve got to really pay attention to, just as far as getting off the bag, little subtleties.”