Darin Ruf must find a fit and prove himself, again

Darin Ruf must find a fit and prove himself, again
January 24, 2014, 12:00 pm
Share This Post

Darin Ruf led the Phillies with a .348 on-base percentage last season and also slugged 14 homers in 73 games. (USA Today Images)

When the 2013 Phillies’ 73-89 season concluded, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. made the organization’s view of Darin Ruf crystal clear.

"Ruf is not a rightfielder," Amaro said then, and with each move the Phillies have made this offseason, Ruf’s chances of making the 2014 opening day roster have dwindled.

"I think he can fill in for us,” Amaro said at the end of September. “I think he can fill in in certain areas, but I can’t sit here and tell you that he’s an everyday player for us. He’s going to have to fight for a job in some way, shape or form."

Proving Amaro wrong
The additions of Marlon Byrd and Bobby Abreu and the re-signing of John Mayberry Jr. have crowded the Phils' outfield picture, and it's now difficult to determine where Ruf fits. He has much-needed right-handed power, but he isn't a starter like Byrd, isn't as versatile or skilled defensively in the outfield as Mayberry and doesn't fill a left-handed need like Abreu.

Once again, Ruf has to prove himself.

"I hear most things that are said and written," Ruf said on Thursday. "It's [Amaro's] opinion. I just have to prove to him -- not just him, but my teammates -- that if that is my role, I can excel and help the team in that role. If it's coming off the bench, if it's playing every other day or so, here or there, matchups, I just have to be ready for whatever role it might be to help the team win as many games as possible."

Ruf's best chance of making the team out of spring training is by showing improved defense in Clearwater -- he's spent the offseason doing agility and form-running work -- and continuing to be an extra-base hit threat. In his brief major-league career, 41 percent of his hits have been homers or doubles.

The great equalizer
Ruf could also make the club through a way fans and analysts often forget about in the winter months: Injury.

If Byrd goes down, or if Mayberry, Abreu or even Kevin Frandsen is hurt in Grapefruit League action, Ruf figures to be the next name up.

If an injury doesn't occur in Clearwater, there's a great chance one will happen at some point during the season, which is why beginning the year at Triple A wouldn't be a crushing blow for Ruf.

"Labels are a little bit overrated," he said. "I started in Triple A last year and ended up starting I don't know how many games (70) up here. So whether you guys want to put a label on starter, bench player, platoon player, it can change throughout the day.

"You have to be ready for everything as a player. They sent Brownie (Domonic Brown) back two or three years. You just have to be ready when your name is called. If I do make the team out of spring training, I've got to be ready to help right off the bat there. If it is going back to Lehigh for however long it is, I just have to take every day down there and do what I have to do to improve at this level."

The circuitous route
It's a realistic, measured approach for a player who's taken the road less traveled to the majors. This is far from the first time Ruf has had to prove himself. His entire career has been about proving himself.

There was no jump from high school to the professional ranks -- it took four years at Creighton before the Phillies spent a 20th-round pick on the Nebraska boy in 2009.

There was no top billing -- Ruf was never considered an elite organizational prospect and has never cracked a top-100 list by Baseball America or MLB.com.

Ruf put himself on the map and forced the Phillies to give him a longer look when he hit 38 homers and slugged .620 at Double A in 2012.

Injuries to Ryan Howard and the need for a right-handed power bat somewhere on the roster have resulted in Ruf's getting 330 major-league plate appearances since 2012. He's hit .257 with an .838 OPS and homered 17 times with 103 strikeouts. Average that out over a full season and you're looking at 32 homers -- but 196 whiffs.

Ruf stood out for the Phillies in the second half last year. He was one of the few regulars who worked deep counts -- his 4.17 pitches per plate appearance led the team.

He had immediate success once he was inserted into the everyday lineup, whether it was at first base, left field or right field. Over his first 41 starts Ruf hit .272/.363/.551 with 11 homers and eight doubles over 168 plate appearances.

Over the next 32 games, he hit .212 with a .655 OPS and hit just three homers while striking out 39 times in 125 plate appearances. That was the type of play that was freshest in Amaro's mind when he made those brutally honest comments about Ruf at the end of September.

"I'd like to cut down on my strikeouts a little bit and I think everyone would agree with me in that assessment," Ruf said. "I might have been trying to do a little too much at the plate, things might have been off. But it's hard to make adjustments in the middle of the season -- I guess it's not hard, but it's more difficult.”

Take a break
This has been Ruf's longest break from baseball in quite a while. He played in the Venezuelan Winter League before 2013 and in the Arizona Fall League before 2012, so the winter months haven't provided him time off to relax, reflect and improve.

That changed this time around.

"It was my first offseason to get a little bit of time off and it was nice. Only took maybe one or two weeks off and then started a good workout program," Ruf said.

"It was the first time where I really got to have that as my offseason, as opposed to having to play every day, not being able to build strength. So for about three months I got to be in the weight room, do some agility, speed work that hopefully will translate on the field."

Outfield experience
It will show in Clearwater whether Ruf's focus on improving his outfield defense has paid off. He made mistakes early and often in spring training last year, but he was so inexperienced in the outfield that you can throw those games away and simply look toward the future.

"I made drastic improvements in a lot of different areas," Ruf said. "Mainly just taking the fundamentals and incorporating them into my everyday play. It was kinda different trying to learn a new position because I felt like I was going back to youth baseball, learning how to throw all over again. Learning how to run properly in the outfield. I came a long way in that and hopefully those things become natural now.

"I don't think any time a new season starts you can look back on last season and say this guy is definitely going to make the team or this guy is not going to make the team. It's a completely new year, a completely new team. You might have certain needs this year that you didn't have last year."

In a very limited sample size, Ruf has looked like a better right-handed bat than Mayberry or Frandsen. He has that going for him. But his point about team needs is well taken and will ultimately determine the Phillies' choice, if injuries don't strip them of that choice. The bench has been a weakness the last two years and that can't be the case again in 2014 if Ryne Sandberg's team wishes to contend.

To Ruf, all of this competition has to make the bench better.

"There's a great deal of good that can come out of competition. Hopefully, the more people we sign in the outfield, the better we all get. And then it's just a matter of what the team thinks it needs, what will help them win the most games," Ruf said.

"I got to spend some time with Marlon the last few days. He's been nothing but helpful to me in the cage. It's not like we see each other as competitors or trying to hold each other back. We both realize the Phillies are going to need both of us at some point this year to win as many games as we can. And we're going to need Bobby and all the guys to win as many games as possible."