Only nine major league outfielders perform better against left-handed pitchers than Justin Ruggiano.
Among active players with at least 500 plate appearances against lefties, Ruggiano ranks 10th in the popular and telling on-base plus slugging percentage, at .856.
That’s not higher than Justin Upton, who is just ahead off Ruggiano on the list, but it is higher than Yoenis Cespedes.
Upton and Cespedes are the premier right-handed-hitting free-agent left fielders on the market, and they should command multiyear contracts worth more than $100 million.
Ruggiano had been targeted by the budget-minded Texas Rangers since the outset of the off-season, and on Thursday the native Texan and Rockwall resident agreed to a one-year deal for $1.65 million plus incentives.
The Rangers locked down the part-time righty hitter they need for defense of their American League West title. Ruggiano will primarily play left field and, for the first time as a big-leaguer, first base as he spells Josh Hamilton and Mitch Moreland against lefty pitchers.
“It’s no secret that’s an area we were looking to address,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “We probably have as many left-handers in our division as anybody, and I don’t think that’s an accident. When you look at how left-handed our lineup is and how left-handed Seattle’s lineup is, it’s intentional on the part of a lot of these clubs.”
Ruggiano saw the lefties piled up in Anaheim (C.J. Wilson, Hector Santiago, Andrew Heaney), Seattle (Wade Miley, Vidal Nuno, Mike Montgomery, James Paxton), Houston (Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel) and Oakland (Rich Hill), and expects plenty of action.
He’s not just on the roster in case Hamilton breaks down. Ruggiano is expected to supply a potent bat and be a key cog in the Rangers’ lineup in a role that he has grown used to the past few seasons.
Since amassing a career-high 424 at-bats in 2013, he has tallied 224 and 125 the past two seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers. Ruggiano has played all three outfield spots but has never taken a big-league field as a first baseman.
It appears he will in 2016.
“It’ll be an exciting challenge to try to take on,” said Ruggiano, who grew up in Austin rooting for the Rangers. “I’ve actually played over there a little bit in the minor leagues but nothing substantial. If I can get some work in and get comfortable, who knows?”
After playing for five teams since his debut in 2008, the closest being Chicago, the 33-year-old Ruggiano also was warm to the idea of living at home and making the 45-minute commute to Globe Life Park rather than uprooting his family for another season.
Being close to home was also a reason Hamilton wanted to return to the Rangers last season. Unfortunately, he also returned to the disabled list and operating table.
The Rangers aren’t convinced that they can count on Hamilton for any more than 120 games. If he can exceed that, great. If not, Ruggiano is a capable backup who is comfortable against right-handed pitching, too.
“The reality is Josh has had two knee operations since toward the end of the season,” Daniels said. “As hard as he’s working to rehab it, there is some unknown there and we wanted to be protected and we also want to protect him by giving him some strategic days off.”
The Rangers crossed an off-season need of their list with Ruggiano, the former Texas A&M star. They continue to seek a starting pitcher and could be moving closer to a deal with Colby Lewis.
The main obstacle between Lewis and a Rangers deal is his availability for Opening Day following knee surgery in October. He said earlier this month that he expects to be ready for spring training.