Guest Post: Written by Steven O’Donnell
One of the least talked about prospects in the White Sox farm system has been 6’1”, 190 lbs. 23-year-old right-handed reliever Jose Ruiz. Relief prospects generally are not that sexy, and rarely find themselves on top prospect lists, but can prove to be extremely valuable to championship teams. In this article I’m going to take a deeper look at a player who may find himself pitching meaningful MLB innings as soon as 2019.
Signed by the San Diego Padres organization in 2011 as an international free agent out of Venezuela, Ruiz began his career as a catcher. Unfortunately, his bat carried a paltry .203 AVG, .239 OBP, .488 OPS through six minor league seasons. That, coupled with below average glovework from the all-important catcher position, left his future uncertain with the organization. While the bat and glove were lacking, Ruiz did have one intriguing tool, clear plus arm strength that allowed him to throw out 37% of base stealers in the minors. The Padres caught onto this and in 2016 converted him into a reliever where he tossed 12 1/3 innings in the low minors allowing just 3 hits, 5 walks and striking out 14. A small sample size, of course, but encouraging from a player that had not pitched since he was much younger in Venezuela. How much impact did him transitioning from being a catcher to reliver have? When asked back in 2017 by Kevin Charity during the MadFriars Q&A about whether being a converted catcher helps him to be a better pitcher, Ruiz’ response was:
“Kind of. Because the catcher has to pay attention to the game. You have to know the moment to throw the fastball or the breaking ball. I trust my catcher and that helps make it easier.”
The results were not as kind in 2017, his first full season pitching at Class-A Advanced Lake Elsinore, where in 49 2/3 innings, Ruiz labored to a nearly 6.00 ERA while walking 4.5 BB/9. A trade with the Kansas City Royals left the Padres short on bullpen arms, leading them to call up Ruiz for a one inning MLB stint, likely because his team played within twenty miles of San Diego. Although raw, Ruiz displayed an intriguing 94-97 MPH fastball that can reach the upper 90’s and mid 80’s breaking ball that he used to strike out Yoenis Cespedes on three straight pitches. The Padres designated Ruiz for assignment on December 15th, 2017 to open up a roster spot for SS Freddy Glavis. Credit the White Sox scouting department for seeing enough in Ruiz to claim him near the end of 2017.
What a difference 2018 has been for him, as Jose has amassed a 3.14 ERA in 51 2/3 innings, allowing only 34 hits (5.9 H/9), 18 walks (3.1 BB/9), while striking out 72 (12.5 SO/9), holding opposing hitters to a .186 batting average against. Originally the Padres coaching staff at High A would only allow Ruiz to throw two pitches, a fastball and a slider because he was so new to pitching. The White Sox now have him working on a currently fringy, but developing, changeup to show left handers and give him a solid three pitch mix to work off of. Digging into the peripherals we see that his FIP of 2.26 and xFIP of 2.92 support the rest of his great numbers at AA Birmingham. He has done a good job of keeping the ball in the park, allowing only three home runs on the season, which is important at the hitter friendly Guaranteed Rate Field.
MLB.com ranks him as the #24th best prospect in our system and his scouting report as:
Scouting grades: Fastball: 65 | Slider: 55 | Changeup: 45 | Control: 45 | Overall: 45
(Video of Ruiz in High A)
Two plus pitches, combined with even a show me third are a solid repertoire. He is not the most athletic player, as his listed weight of 190 lbs. seems light by at least 10-20 lbs. to the eye test. There is also some effort in his delivery, but the overall developmental strides he has taken this year should firmly put him into contention for a bullpen spot heading into Spring Training 2019. Location and command are still works in progress, but his overall plus stuff will play in the majors. He is still a raw player and far from a finished product, but it is difficult to argue with what he has accomplished in such a short time. These are exactly the type of under the radar moves that Rick Hahn and the front office need to be making in order to aid the rebuild. Taking chances on undeveloped talent like Ruiz will be key, as the club cannot rely on outside free agents to fill every hole, especially with the rising cost of relief pitching both in free agency and via trade. After the regrettable Shields-Tatis deal with San Diego, it feels like a small bit of redemption to pluck a potentially useful player from their organization. Where and when Ruiz will makes his debut into the White Sox bullpen is a good question. I would be willing to bet he will be given every opportunity to earn a spot out of Spring Training though there is likely a better chance of seeing him later in the 2019 season. His 13 saves in 15 chances across High-A and AA show results in high leverage situations and he could find success as a potential setup man or maybe even closer. While the future role is uncertain, he should be a fun, under-the-radar prospect to watch on the South Side. Importantly, Ruiz will be rule five draft eligible, so he will need to be added to the 40-man roster and protected, which at this point is a foregone conclusion.
Featured Photo: Birmingham Barons / Twitter