Third base prospect Rio Ruiz still in Braves’ long-term plans

On his December trip to Atlanta for the Braves’ prospect development camp, Rio Ruiz found himself in conversation with John Hart. The team’s third base prospect and president of baseball operations spoke for about two minutes. Then Ruiz went to work.

"He pulled me to the side out of everybody. He just told me, ‘Hey, we still love ya. We want you take control of your career and see what we can do with it,’" said Ruiz, who joined talented right-hander Mike Foltynewicz as the top-tier prospects acquired in the Evan Gattis trade last January. " … It’s definitely a great feeling to know that, especially after a tough season. It was reassuring more than anything."

Now in his second Braves camp, the 21-year-old is in an intriguing position: Last season’s setbacks hurt his individual stock, placing him behind the organization’s top-rated third-base prospect Austin Riley, but the parent club’s immediate question marks at the hot corner mean there’s little blocking Ruiz from playing his way into MLB consideration in 2016. And considering Riley’s age (18) and lack of experience — the franchise’s 41st overall draft pick last summer made two rookie ball stops — Ruiz is poised to get the first shot at securing the franchise’s "Third Baseman of the Future" label. His time is coming.

Ruiz’s production, however, will first need to return to his days in the Astros farm system.

A top-100 prospect at the time of the Gattis trade, Double-A pitching proved a difficult puzzle to solve. Ruiz hit .233/.333/.324 with five home runs, nearly a 25 percent decline from his offensive production at High-A Lancaster, as his strikeout rate spiked and walk rate dipped. In turn, his hype died down, falling to the No. 17 spot in the organization’s prospect composite rankings.

The former Southern Cal quarterback recruit is not running from his quiet 2015 campaign, but there were silver linings.

"The first half obviously wasn’t what I wanted, but I still took positives out of the negatives and carried them on through the second half. I kinda rolled with that. I just got back to being who I was," Ruiz said. "The first half I was trying to do too much, trying to impress too many people.

"Then the All-Star break rolled around and I just said, ‘Hey, if I’m gonna go down struggling, I’m gonna go down swinging.’ I was little bit more aggressive and that helped me see the ball better."

The adjustments paid off. After putting April and May in his rearview mirror, he became an on-base machine (.424) in June. His power returned at the end of the season — he hit each of his five homers in the final three months — as he capped the campaign with a strong August and September. The overall splits tell the story:

Jumping on pitches early in counts helped him regain his rhythm as well. Ruiz added a ridiculous 331 points to his on-base percentage when he was ahead in counts last season — or, in his words, when he avoided being "too passive."

"Pitching-wise, (Double-A pitchers) are just more consistent. They can repeat pitches at will. They throw any pitch in any count," said Ruiz, who opened the spring schedule with two hits against the Tigers on Tuesday. "I think obviously I was young there so I don’t know how different it is as opposed to Triple-A or the big leagues, but it was significantly better. … It took some growing pains to realize (the jump) in the first half, but I grew."

Ruiz showed up to spring training a different, more focused prospect this time around. Hart’s words, he said, resonated. He altered his diet and threw himself into a more rigorous workout routine. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was one of many in camp who noticed the difference.

"His body’s gotten better. He’s gotten stronger. You can see the bat starting to work a little bit. Those are good signs to see," Gonzalez said. "Last year, he came here and he was only like 19, if I’m not mistaken, 19- or 20-year-old. The progression is there."

At the top level, the Braves claim one of the messiest third-base situations in baseball. Hector Olivera, the 30-year-old Cuba native, was Plan A when the franchise traded for him at the 2015 trade deadline, but an offseason position change has him learning to track fly balls in left field. His presumed replacement, Adonis Garcia, hit 10 home runs in 198 plate appearances and posted a higher slugging percentage as a rookie than he did at any minor-league stop, but there’s ample room for doubt surrounding his future prospects. The team added veterans Gordon Beckham and Kelly Johnson on one-year deals this offseason to add competition and depth.

Then there’s this unspoken possibility: Atlanta’s front office spent last season trading productive, low-cost veterans, so there’s no guarantee those 25-man roster spots will be filled throughout the season.

Ruiz is unsure where he’ll start the season, but even if he returns to Double-A ball, he’s just a quality month or two from being promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett — just 35 miles from Atlanta. A midseason trade or injury could punch his MLB ticket. Gonzalez called him a "work in progress" defensively, but Ruiz’s lefty bat holds plenty of potential and untapped power. Aside from outfielder Mallex Smith, he might be the organization’s closest high-profile position prospect to the majors.

Third baseman Rio Ruiz joined Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman as the prospect haul in the Evan Gattis trade between the Braves and Astros.

"I have a goal this season. Last year was just kinda to see how it plays out. I’m coming into this camp trying to make the team and carry on what I did at the end of last year," Ruiz said. "That should be everybody’s goal in this camp. If it’s not, then I don’t know why you’re here."

It’s easy to forget, or write off, the fact that Rio Ruiz was considered a major piece of the team’s rebuilding strategy just 12 months ago. A bounce-back season could put him right back into the middle of that blueprint — and on Hart and general manager John Coppolella’s MLB radar for 2016.

"They say that they want me," Ruiz said. "I’m doing anything and everything I can to get there.”