Keibert Ruiz, signed for just $140,000 as an international free agent in 2014, has already proven well worth that deal, reaching Triple-A at the tender age of 21, as one of the best catching prospects in the game. He’s one of the Dodgers’ best prospects, and depending on who you ask, he may even be number one (though he came in at number three in my midseason update). The Dodgers, however, have the luxury of having two premier catching prospects in Ruiz and Will Smith, and the latter was recently promoted to the major leagues for the second time.
With the Dodgers in the pole position to win their third consecutive National League pennant, many have argued that it’s time for Andrew Friedman and company to go all in at this year’s trade deadline and acquire players who’d shore up the team’s only obvious weakness: the bullpen. In previous years, while Andrew Friedman has traded plenty of prospects, he has chosen to take a select few off the table in trade talks, including guys like Corey Seager, Walker Buehler, and Cody Bellinger. While their performances have vindicated Friedman’s judgement, the ultimate goal of capturing a World Series title has still yet to be achieved, leaving some to posit that it’s time for a change in philosophy.
It’s no question the Dodgers have a clear top four prospects in their system, no matter the order: Gavin Lux, Dustin May, Ruiz, and Smith. Getting a game changing reliever like Felipe Vasquez will take one of those, and may even take multiple. However, the Dodgers must also face this conundrum: Smith has already contributed at the major league level this year, and was recently promoted to be get the majority of starts at catcher in the majors. Meanwhile, Lux & May have both excelled in their short stints with OKC since being promoted in June, and have caught the eye of manager Dave Roberts. With how they’ve performed, it’s not extremely difficult to conceive Lux and or May possibly contributing to this Dodgers team in September or October.
Of the aforementioned big four, Ruiz is by far the least likely to make an impact. He was just recently promoted to Triple-A, and his results in Double-A were underwhelming. If the Dodgers were to try to go after a premium reliever, while still not giving up anyone who might contribute to this year’s team, Ruiz seems like the likeliest to go. But should he? Let’s take a look at a few pros and cons for trading Keibert Ruiz.
Points for Keeping Ruiz
Creating a Competitive Advantage
In 2017, the Dodgers held arguably the biggest competitive advantage in baseball: of catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, the Dodgers had two of the top three in WAR per PA, with Austin Barnes coming in at second, and Yasmani Grandal right behind him at third. Using the same qualifying numbers, Barnes was also first among catchers in wRC+, and Grandal was still better than a league average hitter, while providing the third most defensive value in the league at the position. Dodger catchers put up a total of 8 WAR that season, and just four other teams reached even half of that total. Catching has always been a less offensive oriented position, so having two catchers who could hit and play good defense was a huge reason why the Dodgers were able to reach the World Series in 2017. If they end up keeping both of them, Ruiz and Smith could create another terrific twosome behind the plate for the Dodgers, one that could last for years.
The Rigors of Catching
Catchers need more time off than the average player, as the physical demands of the position are greater than any other position player. In that 2017 season, the leader in games played at the position, J.T. Realmuto, still only played just 141 games. Grandal and Barnes played 129 and 102, respectively. But, having a strong backup catcher or solid partnership actually allows catchers to stave off fatigue over the course of a season, vital to teams with intentions of succeeding in the playoffs. Theoretically, if both were kept, Smith and Ruiz could keep each other fresh and playing at a high level, all the way through October.
Protecting Against Uncertainty
Prospects are, of course, still prospects, and there are no guarantees. While Smith has been officially promoted and basically named the starting catcher, and he has done well in a small sample size, we cannot just assume he’s going to be what he projects to be. His defensive ability, walk rates, and power give him a relatively higher floor than many catching prospects, but there’s no way to know for sure what he’ll be. Keeping Ruiz gives the Dodgers a hedge against Smith busting; with two of the best catching prospects in baseball, the Dodgers could feel a lot more confident with the odds that one of those two is going to develop into a really good catcher.
Points for Trading Ruiz
Catching Prospects Can Be Tricky
Remember Blake Swihart? How about Jesus Montero? Or maybe the newly rejuvenated Travis d’Arnaud? They’re all former stud catching prospects who never reached their once lofty potential. As mentioned in previous paragraphs, prospects, no matter how good they project to be, are just that, prospects, with no assurances in how they’ll perform in the future. So, why not flip the argument around? Instead of keeping Ruiz for the sake of hedging against a Will Smith bust, why not trade him to avoid him fizzling out and losing his value?
The Dodgers’ Ridiculous Catching Depth
The Dodgers have two of the best catching prospects in baseball in Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz, but the depth doesn’t end there. Diego Cartaya, one of the top players in last year’s international free agent class, has already made it to the Arizona League as a 17 year old, and has best-catcher-in-baseball upside. Connor Wong, the team’s third round pick from 2017, was recently promoted to Double-A, and, like Smith, can also play the infield. Cartaya would be the best catching prospect in a lot of organizations, and Wong would probably be in a couple as well. It’s not that the Dodgers have to trade a catching prospect; it’s that they can afford to do so, because they’re deeper than any other organization in baseball at the position.
The Two Cases, Summed Up
The Case for Trading Keibert Ruiz
The Dodgers are once again the class of the National League, and look primed to return to the World Series for a third consecutive year. The lineup is deep, and the rotation has arguably three aces, but the bullpen needs help. Acquiring a stud reliever like Felipe Vasquez might be the final piece to the puzzle that this team needs, and Ruiz is the team’s best trade chip. He’s the only one of the team’s top prospect quartet who almost certainly won’t see the majors this year, while the others might contribute in the playoffs. The team already has Will Smith ready to play, while Diego Cartaya is developing in the minors as a potential superstar. It’s time to go all in, push all the chips to the center, and cash in on the team’s best trade chip, with the purpose of ending the 31 year World Series drought.
The Case for Keeping Keibert Ruiz
Ruiz is not only a special talent, but he’s got the makings of future stardom.
As you zoom in to that lower left part of the graph where comparable seasons are, it becomes apparent. This chart area is DENSE with superstars, future stars & ex-elite prospects. As always, there are some names that didn’t pan out, but theres FAR more studs than busts. (2/5) pic.twitter.com/hCh8PiqwGx
— Connor Kurcon (@ckurcon) August 27, 2018
That’s a really special list to be on, and that doesn’t even account for his advanced defensive acumen. Ruiz is really, really good, and trading him for a relief pitcher, any relief pitcher, would be asinine. Relievers constantly vary from year to year, and even a bet on one of the best, like Vasquez, just isn’t worth it. Creating a tandem of Smith and Ruiz for the next six or more seasons would give the Dodgers one of the biggest competitive advantages in the game, one that practically no other team could match. Plus, Smith’s ability to play the infield means they can both get sufficient playing time, too.
Verdict and Prediction
The case for keeping Ruiz is too strong to overlook; while stats aren’t everything, walk and strikeout rates at the upper levels of the minors are more predictive than other stats, and especially so when they’re correlated with age. The only tool missing from Ruiz’s profile right now is power, and with his bat control and the current state of the game, it’s not hard to envision him developing it. When factoring in his defense, we’re talking about a guy who could be one of the very best catchers in the game. The Dodgers’ whole foundation is built on depth, and a Ruiz/Smith pairing at catcher is depth to the extreme. While the Dodgers will go after bullpen improvements at this year’s deadline, don’t expect them to trade Ruiz in order to do so.