Padres seek spark with speedy callup Ruiz

July 13th, 2022

DENVER -- For weeks (months, really) the Padres have been scouring the trade market for outfield options.

But before they make a move ahead of the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline, they're going to get a good look at an intriguing internal option.

On Tuesday, San Diego selected the contract of outfielder Esteury Ruiz, the team's No. 28 prospect in the MLB Pipeline rankings, from Triple-A El Paso. Fellow outfielder Brent Rooker was optioned to El Paso, and right-hander Robert Suarez was transferred to the 60-day injured list to clear space on the roster for Ruiz.

"It's a dream come true," Ruiz said on Tuesday, through a team interpreter, before his MLB debut in the Padres’ 5-3 loss to the Rockies. "Obviously, it's something I've been looking forward to since I was a young kid. Getting this opportunity for my first callup -- it's a very exciting moment."

In 77 games between Double-A and Triple-A this season, Ruiz posted a slash line of .333/.467/.560, while leading the Minor Leagues with 60 stolen bases. He fits nicely into an area of need for the Padres, who have gotten minimal production from their outfielders this year. Entering play Tuesday, the Padres' .643 outfield OPS ranked 26th in the Majors.

Ruiz started in center field Tuesday night, batting eighth. He collected his first MLB hit in his first at-bat -- a line single to center in the second inning -- and his first RBI with a single to right field in the eighth. Ruiz was 2-for-4 but ran into a big out when he was caught stealing at third base with two outs in the eighth and the potential go-ahead run in the batter's box.

What can we expect from Ruiz?
His skill set is enticing, to say the least. Ruiz brings some truly elite speed and a knack for stealing bases. To go along with those 60 steals, he has been caught only nine times.

"It gives a little different dynamic to what we've been doing," said Padres manager Bob Melvin.

Of course, to steal bases, Ruiz first needs to reach base. That's been the biggest change in his game over the past year. He always has boasted those elite tools -- solid power to go along with his otherworldly speed.

But his breakout season has been predicated on a significant change in his plate discipline. Ruiz is striking out at a 17.4% clip this season, easily a career low. And he's walking at a 13.9% clip, easily a career high.

"It was mostly working on my posture, my batting stance in terms of trying to identify better pitches," Ruiz said. "That's helped me be able to have a little bit more success in being able to reach."

How does he fit, and where will he play?
It’s easy to envision something of a center-field platoon between the righty-hitting Ruiz and the lefty-hitting Trent Grisham. Ruiz has raked against left-handed pitching in the Minors this year, posting a 1.327 OPS.

But this opportunity might be more than that. Ruiz is capable of playing all three outfield positions, and there's clearly playing time available right now, with left fielder Jurickson Profar on the seven-day concussion IL.

When Profar returns, Ruiz might be relegated back into something of a platoon with Grisham. But he's also a viable pinch-hit option against lefties, and, perhaps most notably, a serious threat as a pinch-runner.

"It's something I've enjoyed since I was a kid," Ruiz said of his skill set as a baserunner. "It's just exciting to be on the basepaths, running around and creating opportunities."

What's next in the Padres’ outfield search?
No, the Padres won’t stand pat at the Deadline simply because Ruiz might get hot for a few weeks. But who knows? It might change the way they think of their outfield riddle.

Right now, the Padres are mulling a couple possibilities: They could trade for an outfielder capable of playing center -- perhaps a righty hitter who could platoon with Grisham and play a corner when Grisham starts. Or, if the Padres are content with their center-field options, they could search for a bat-first corner-outfield bopper.

Those two paths are not mutually exclusive. But the latter should be easier to find than the former.

No matter what happens, the Padres almost certainly will trade for an outfield bat of some sort. But Ruiz’s performance might swing the pendulum in one direction or the other.