Fleet-footed outfielder Esteury Ruiz has been informed that he’ll be on the Athletics’ Opening Day roster, manager Mark Kotsay announced to the team’s beat on Friday (Twitter link via Matt Kawahara of the San Francisco Chronicle). It hasn’t yet been decided whether that’ll be as the team’s primary center fielder, however. Kotsay indicated the team still has decisions to make in the outfield.
Ruiz, 24, has had a whirlwind nine months, going from the Padres to the Brewers as part of the Josh Hader trade only to be flipped to the A’s just months later in the three-team Sean Murphy swap. Atlanta sent catcher William Contreras and righty Justin Yeager to Milwaukee in that deal, and the Brewers also picked up righty Joel Payamps from Oakland as part of the arrangement.
After all that shuffling, Ruiz looks as though he’ll finally have a clear path to a potential everyday role. He’s done practically everything he could to win this spot on the roster, recording an impressive .325/.404/.475 batting line with a homer, three doubles, six steals (in seven tries) and five walks against four strikeouts in 48 trips to the plate.
Ruiz is among the fastest players in the sport, evidenced by a ridiculous 86 stolen bases in 102 tries between Double-A, Triple-A and a brief big league debut last year. He also turned in a sensational .332/.447/.526 batting line between Double-A and Triple-A. The raw numbers are clearly off the charts, but scouts are also wary of Ruiz’s frequent weak contact and ability to handle top-tier pitching at the MLB level.
It bears mentioning that he upped his walk rate in the minors by a considerable margin last year and did so while simultaneously paring back his strikeout rate. If he can come anywhere close to replicating last year’s 12.2% minor league walk rate and 17.4% minor league strikeout rate at the big league level, Ruiz’s speed could be a carrying tool that allows him to carve out a role as a big league regular. Speed alone won’t make him a surefire big leaguer, of course, but it’s hard not to be intrigued by his baserunning prowess, gaudy minor league numbers and strong spring showing.
Ruiz’s exact role in the outfield remains uncertain, perhaps in part because the out-of-options Cristian Pache has largely kept pace with him this spring, Pache, acquired from the Braves in the Matt Olson trade, is a former top prospect who has looked completely overmatched by Major League pitching but is one of the game’s top defensive talents. He hit just .166/.218/.241 with the A’s a year ago but has turned in a .317/.349/.439 batting line this spring. After striking out in 27% of his plate appearances last year, he’s fanned in just 14% of his plate appearances this spring.
[Related: The Athletics’ Outfield Dilemma]
It’s a small sample, as is all spring data, but it’s a welcome sign of encouragement with regard to Pache’s future. There’s room in the outfield for both Pache and Ruiz alongside Ramon Laureano, but waiver claim Conner Capel is also enjoying a strong spring: .278/.447/.500 in 47 plate appearances. Capel has minor league options remaining but is making a case for an outfield spot himself.
Given the lack of established talent on Oakland’s roster, it’s feasible that the A’s could rotate all of Laureano, Ruiz, Pache, Capel through the lineup, perhaps also giving occasional outfield reps to Seth Brown. JJ Bleday, acquired from the Marlins for A.J. Puk but optioned to Triple-A earlier this spring, figures to eventually get a look in the Majors this season as well. However it all shakes out, it seems quite likely that the A’s will want Ruiz in the lineup more often than not. The fact that they made him one of the centerpieces of their return for Murphy is indicative of how they view his long-term potential, and carrying him on the roster in anything less than a regular role would be surprising.