CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The future of the Houston Astros is looking pretty bright. Just take a look at their Low-A Quad Cities River Bandits roster, peppered with former Perfect Game All-Americans Lance McCullers, Carlos Correa, and Rio Ruiz. This year’s first overall draft pick, Mark Appel, was also on the roster for a short time.
What’s more impressive is that these high-profile players are all meeting or excelling the organization’s expectations and giving Astros fans something to which they look forward. With McCullers and Appel dazzling spectators with high-90s fastballs and Correa stealing the attention from nearly every other baseball player on the field, Ruiz has quietly shown continuous progression and similar promise.
Ruiz, who was once told by scouts and advisors that he was a sure first-round pick, fell to the fourth round in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and undergoing emergency surgery.
“I thought, ‘My baseball life is over’,” said Ruiz. I didn’t even think I was gonna play sports again, to be honest.”
Ruiz explained that thoracic outlet syndrome happens from the collarbone pushing down on a vein, thus cutting off blood flow to certain parts of the body. He thinks it could have been caused by the amount of lifting he did, combined with the different throwing motions of a football and baseball.
"It developed a blood clot and my arm got swollen up pretty good,” Ruiz said. “I wasn’t able to lift my arm past 90 degrees without it being painful."
Ruiz visited a doctor to see what the problem was and remembers being told right then and there he was going into emergency surgery.
"It was scary,” Ruiz recalled. “They went in with a catheter to try and dig out the clot. It wasn’t possible, so they put me on blood thinners thinking that would break up the clot, but it didn’t so the clot is still in me now.
"The doctors say there’s no reason to worry. It’s all behind me and I’m just looking forward."
The road to recovery hasn’t always been so easy for Ruiz, though. A two-sport athlete, Ruiz was sidelined during a short period of his senior football season with a knee sprain and seemed to be plagued with the injury bug. Despite rumors about his high draft status for baseball going into his senior year, he couldn’t turn down one last season on the gridiron.
“I went in saying, ‘I love football. Baseball and football have always been my life. This is probably gonna be my last year playing football so why not do it’.”
Suffering from two injuries his senior year, including the clot that sidelined him for most of his final high school baseball season, Ruiz’s draft stock took a hit and the first day of the draft went by without his name being called.
“After that first day, it was hard,” recalled Ruiz. “My agent would tell me, ‘It’s a high possibility that you’re gonna go first round’ and other scouts would tell me the same thing.”
He was told this, of course, before the blood clot developed in his arm.
“It was some freak accident that I didn’t expect to happen, but I just had to roll with it and deal with all the issues that were gonna come with it,” Ruiz said.
Disappointed at the fall in his draft stock, Ruiz said he didn’t think he would be drafted as soon as he was the following day and wasn’t really following the draft at all at that point. If the draft didn’t go as he hoped, he always had his offer to play baseball at the University of Southern California. However, without his knowledge, the Houston Astros took him in the fourth round.
“I didn’t even know what was going on. My dad told me I got drafted and we didn’t have any idea what the offer was gonna be, what the signing bonus was,” said Ruiz. “We didn’t hear anything until a couple days later. My family and I gathered together and thought really hard about it and decided this (accepting the Astros offer) was the best decision for me.
“I’m just really glad that the Astros thought highly of me and took a chance on me and I’m just really thankful for that and I’m not gonna let ‘em down.”
Wrapping up his first full season as a professional ballplayer, Ruiz has experienced the up’s and down’s of a five-month season.
“I didn’t really believe everybody saying that it was a grind and you just gotta grind everything out, but now that the season’s ended and we’re in the postseason I could look back and say it really was a grind,” Ruiz said. “I’m really thankful to get through my first full season without really any major issues.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing throughout the year for Ruiz, who finished the first two months with a dismal .205 (26-for-127) batting average and just two home runs, very uncharacteristic of a guy whom scouts projected to have lots of power potential.
“The first month or two I didn’t know what was going on,” Ruiz said. “I was doubting myself and I just told myself to keep pushing through.”
With a positive mindset to keep working, Ruiz saw improvement, hitting .297 (70-for-236) with nine home runs after the All-Star break. He finished the regular season with a .260 average, 12 home runs, and 63 RBI.
“I owe a lot of credit to our hitting coach, Joel Chimelis,” said Ruiz. “He and I did a lot of work on fixing little things here and there and it was a good result.”
Ruiz has stayed hot in the postseason so far, going a combined 4-for-5 with a home run in the series sweep over the Cedar Rapids Kernels to advance in the Midwest League playoffs.
“It’s a whole bunch of confidence,” Ruiz said about his recent success at the plate. “Everybody knows, including myself, that I started off slow, but then I just kept adjusting and trying to get better every single month and it showed. I’ll go into spring training with the same idea and same work ethic and have a better season next year as well.”
Ruiz says the blood clot is no longer a problem and doesn’t affect his play. With that behind him along with his early season learning curve, the sky is the limit for this once-projected first-rounder. The Astros may have gotten a steal with this selection.