For Braves prospect Ruiz, one goal stands above all else: Make team

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The likelihood of third-base prospect Rio Ruiz making the Braves’ opening-day roster at spring training was never good, regardless of what he did this spring.

They had incumbent Adonis Garcia penciled in at third base and no room on a 25-man roster to carry two players who play only third base, especially if they carry eight relief pitchers instead of seven, as is likely to be the case.

That said, Ruiz has impressed the Braves since the day he reported (early) to spring training, his strength and conditioning again at a new level after his second offseason immersed in a high-level workout regimen and healthy diet. But the physique doesn’t matter if performance doesn’t follow, and in Ruiz’s case, it has. He’s getting better all the time.

After going 2-for-4 with a double and a walk Saturday, he had seven hits in his past 10 at-bats to raise his average to .326 with a .396 on-base percentage and .838 OPS in 17 Grapefruit League games before Sunday. Ruiz had two doubles and a home run among his team-high 14 hits, tied for eighth in the National League before Sunday.

“It’s been encouraging to see Rio’s development and progress this year in camp,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “He’s got a really bright future and Rio should get credit for the improvements in his body and all facets of his game.”

Ruiz has taken advantage of extensive playing time, especially while Garcia’s been out a week with a sore hamstring (Garcia could return Monday).

“He’s coming along very well,” Braves bench coach Terry Pendleton said of Ruiz, a fellow Los Angeles native. “He’s starting to swing the bat the way he’s capable of, and he’s getting better defensively. He’s starting to get it, he’s starting to understand he’s got to use his feet to do all the other stuff he wants to do, and it’s starting to show.”

Ruiz has done plenty to impress team officials in his second major league camp. But when asked Sunday morning if he was pleased with his spring, Ruiz hesitates before answering.

“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he said. “But obviously there’s an ultimate goal to it. But you can’t ask for too much. All you can ask for is to go out there and play the game, then everything will take care of itself.”

There was no hesitation when he was asked about that goal.

“Make the team,” Ruiz answered, looking a reporter straight in the eyes.

Again, that was never going to be simple, if even possible, this spring.

Not as long as the Braves had Garcia, who hit a solid .273 with 43 extra-base hits (14 home runs) in 134 games in his second major league season, albeit with a lackluster .311 OBP and .406 slugging percentage. He’s a known commodity and serviceable defensive player, and the Braves intended all along to start the season with Garcia at third base.

And it’s not as if Ruiz, after two seasons of upper-level minor league ball including one at Triple-A, is any danger of getting stale in a second year at Gwinnett. He still has plenty of room for improvement after a good but inconsistent first year at that level.

Roster decisions are “beyond our control sometimes,” Pendleton said, speaking from the perspective of a former player. “At his age, he’s got to play every day, too. That’s everything you have to look at.”

What Ruiz has done this spring certainly gives team decision-makers more confidence that if they need a replacement at any point, he would be ready.

“That’s a big help, because even if you don’t make the club, they won’t be afraid to call you back and give you an opportunity to do it,” Pendleton said. “But he’s definitely impressed, and he continues to as we’re going through this.”

Ruiz has dropped more than 30 pounds since the end of the 2015 season, when he weighed about 240 and was told by Braves president of baseball operations John Hart that he needed to “take ownership” of his career and give himself a better chance to realize his potential by getting in better shape.

Ruiz reported to spring training a year ago at 220 pounds and, as one of the youngest players in the Triple-A International League, hit .271 with 10 home runs and a .355 OBP. Rewarded with his first major league call-up in September, he was 2-for-7 with a triple in five games, including one start.

“Like I said (at the beginning of spring training), there’s no comfortability whatsoever,” Ruiz said. “I haven’t done anything. I have, what, five games in the big leagues? Seven at-bats, something like that? That’s a little sample to go by, and it’s obviously not enough for everybody to see what I’m capable of, what I know I’m capable of. And I knew coming into spring training that I needed to do something to really make it a hard decision for the front office.”

Does he feel like he’s done that?

“I can say all I want, but it’s their decision ultimately,” he said. “I mean, I know I’ve done a lot of things that I’m happy with, as far as offensively, defensively and everything else. I’ve stayed on the baseball field. And like I said, I just have to do my part and play the game as hard as I can.

“I think I’ve done that so far.”

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