PEORIA, Ariz. — Justin Ruggiano began preparing for his role with the 2015 Mariners nearly eight years ago when he got his first taste of the big leagues as a late-season promotion at Tampa Bay.
George Hendrick was the outfield coach for a club then known as the Devil Rays. Hendrick had also logged 18 years as an outfielder for six franchises. He pulled Ruggiano aside and offered a bit of advice.
“I came up playing right field,” Ruggiano recalled. “I’d played center field in college. But he said, `Listen, if you want to be in the big leagues for a long time, you’d better be able to play center field.’
“So, every time I got sent down, I always made it a point to talk to whoever manager was and say, `I really need to play some center. I really want to be out there.’”
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Ruggiano’s own resume now shows parts of six big-league seasons and is distinguished, in large part, by his versatility in being able to play all three outfield positions.
It was that combination of versatility and experience that attracted the Mariners when they set about overhauling their outfield in the off-season.
Ruggiano, who turns 33 in April, offered a right-handed bat to help balance what, even after signing free-agent Nelson Cruz, remained a lefty-heavy lineup.
Acquiring Ruggiano also provided the Mariners with a backup to center fielder Austin Jackson, whom club officials believe wore down in last season’s closing weeks.
“He played 154 games last year,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “That’s too many for a center fielder with his frame. It wears you down. We’re going to do our best to knock that number down.”
Ruggiano started three early spring games in center field as Jackson worked on the every-other-day plan that is typical for veterans in the first few weeks.
But Ruggiano’s time in center also reflects McClendon’s desire to make a personal assessment of his work in center. (The Mariners have since shifted to using James Jones in center when they rest Jackson.)
McClendon’s growing conviction is Ruggiano “is a talented kid who can play all three” outfield positions. That is notable because McClendon plans little movement for the other outfielders.
Jackson will play center. Dustin Ackley and Rickie Weeks project as a left-right tandem in left field, and McClendon said Seth Smith, who will play primarily against right-handed pitchers, will likely be restricted to right field.
McClendon also said Cruz, when he isn’t the designated hitter, will only play right field. All of which sets up Ruggiano with the opportunity to share duty in right with Smith and play center and left when needed.
“Great,” he said. “That’s what I’ve done my whole career. All three, I’m pretty comfortable now at this point.”
That Ruggiano is ticketed for platoon duty in right field is largely due to Smith’s notable left/right career splits: .277/.358/.481 vs. right-handers and just .205/.291/.314 vs. lefties.
Because while Ruggiano’s career left/right splits show he hits for more power against left-handed pitchers — a .508 slugging percentage compared to .390 — his batting average and on-base percentage are fairly close.
Club officials suggest that could produce occasional playing time against right-handed pitchers, if not over Smith in right, then elsewhere in the outfield.
Hendrick was right. Versatility helps.