Heading into last season’s trade deadline, the Padres, owning one of the league’s most tradeable assets in Brad Hand, looked poised to land an elite prospect. Yet, much to the chagrin of fans and baseball pundits, the deadline came and went without a major move by A.J. Preller and company.
They instead settled for a familiar but unpopular path in the Royals trade, plucking a low-level flier out of obscurity. That low-level flier, an 18-year-old second baseman named Esteury Ruiz, received minimal attention during the 2015 international signing period, ultimately agreeing to terms with Kansas City for a modest $100,000 signing bonus.
In his brief time with Royals’ organization, all Ruiz did was hit. He slashed a robust .313/.378/.512 in the Dominican League and a sensational .419/.440/.779 over 21 games in Arizona in 2017. He may not have kept up that torrid pace after the trade, but the .300/.364/.475 he posted was more than respectable at this age.
Ruiz’s performance and accolades garnered him significantly more attention as a prospect this offseason, but he’s still a bit under the radar considering he boasts one of the best pure hit tools in the organization among players not named Luis Urias.
An Aggressive Approach
In his Fort Wayne TinCaps debut, he seemed intent on displaying that tool right out of the gate, twice swinging at the first pitch he saw at the plate and ripping one of them down the third baseline for a double. “Yeah, I’m always ready for the fastball and looking for it,” commented Ruiz through a translator. “If there’s a fastball right down the middle like that, I’m going to swing regardless of the pitch number.”
That aggressive approach doesn’t often translate to many walks for Ruiz- he had a mere 13 BB in his 225 plate appearances last season. But his quick hands and fluid swing have enabled him to keep strikeouts to a palatable level so far.
In our conversation, Ruiz emphasized his goal entering the season is to mature at the plate while still staying aggressive. “I’d really like to control the battle at the plate this year and to be able to use the whole field. I mean I definitely look to use the whole field, but I have to look to see what the pitcher is giving me. If he goes middle-middle, I’m going to take what he gives me and go up the middle. If he goes away, I’m going to take it to right.”
Despite his stated goal and solid debut, Ruiz struggled in the early going in the Midwest league, hitting a paltry .274 and striking out in over a quarter of his plate appearances. Without making any excuses, he acknowledged he needs some acclimation.
“The competition here is not a big difference from Rookie Ball,” Ruiz said. “But the pitchers do control their stuff better. [During our first game], it was harder for me because I’m not used to playing in this weather. I come from the tropical weather of the Dominican Republic…it was hard, but I’m here to do my best. It’s not impossible to adjust.”
Ruiz is certainly not the only player who struggled through the uncharacteristically frigid Midwest weather. A number of TinCaps players, both pitchers and position players, looked stiff and out of sync through the first handful of games. Yet, as the temperature has heated up, so has Ruiz. He has thrived over his last ten games to the tune of a .333 average with two homers and only one strikeout per game.
“Ruiz did struggle some early in the season, but you could see a difference this weekend against Dayton as he picked up five hits in the final two games of the series,” said Sinn. “It’s possible the early-season cold weather slowed him down after he played all of last season in Arizona, but as the weather gets better I expect him to be a force on offense. I watched him take batting practice from up close last week and his swing stood out from most his teammates’ because of its fluidity. There are relatively few moving parts. He definitely passes the eye test for me and I expect he’ll gain some muscle as he matures, helping him tap into some more power.”
Even in the short time this season, Ruiz’s gap power is evident. However, Ruiz still needs to grow into his frame to truly tap into his grade 60 raw power. He’s a wiry six foot, though he’s now bigger than his listed 150 lbs. This wasn’t lost on Ruiz, who focused this offseason on precisely that. “I spent time working on my legs and lower body strength to get ready for the season…expecting to bring more power to my game.”
Of course, it’ll take a couple more years of work for that power to fully manifest, but Ruiz seemingly understands the importance of this development as a bat-first player. His average glove and arm suggest he primarily will be limited to second base, though the Padres have tested him some at the hot corner so far in Fort Wayne.
Regardless, if Ruiz’ offseason work translates into continued success, he’ll no longer be as obscure in prospect circles as he was when the Padres acquired him last season. In fact, he might even sneak onto a top 100 list or two.
For now, people around the team seem content that Ruiz has made a smooth transition into the organization and is doing the right things to build on his auspicious start in the minors. “When I talked to him before the season,” Sinn shared, “he said all the right things about wanting to help his team win and continuing to work hard in his new organization. He doesn’t seem to have had any trouble adjusting to the Padres’ system, since he told me, ‘Everything is the same thing. The only thing that’s changed is the uniforms.'”