Justin Ruggiano isn’t exactly a stranger to a rebuild. But he’s also seen the fruits of a front office’s efforts.
As the Cubs stock their farm system with talent and fans watch the box scores from Iowa and Tennessee, Ruggiano is contributing at the big league level. Now a fifth-year major league veteran, the outfielder has heated up with the weather. He smacked a pinch-hit double on Saturday to raise his average to .293. His average is nearly .300 even while he’s been bothered and limited with a tweaked groin.
On top of his production, Ruggiano has been through this whole eye-on-the-future thing before. He was a member of a young group of Tampa Bay Rays that hit the bigs around the same time, not just signaling the future of the franchise but making an immediate run to the World Series in 2008. He sees parallels in the Cubs’ young core.
“It was kind of the same thing in Tampa, except ’08 we were pushing the envelope and trying to win there,” Ruggiano explained. “It was actually the same type of thing. We all played together in Double-A and then some of us in Triple-A together, and we kind of all came up as a unit. S we learned how to win together in the minor leagues, we learned how to do all the tedious things of baseball in the minors, kind of grind it out down there a little bit. And then collectively came up when we were ready as a whole. (Evan) Longoria, (Reid) Brignac, me and (Matt) Joyce, who was traded over there. We all came up at the same time and sprinkled some veteran guys in there and had a really good team.”
[MORE CUBS: Bullpen struggles burn Cubs in 6-3 loss to Cardinals]
The Cubs front office is hoping for a similar result when the likes of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber all make their long-anticipated debuts. And Ruggiano thinks it can happen.
“I think when you learn how to win at the lower levels together, when you learn how to do little things, to me, attention to detail in the minors. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on down there, but I think the more emphasis they put on doing the little things right — rundowns, bunt plays, base running, taking the extra base, all that kind of stuff — down there, it makes it a lot easier transition when you’re here. It’s ingrained into you down there. When you do it as a whole, as a unit, as a team and you’re winning down there and you bring it up here, it makes a big difference.”
Ruggiano said it’s been tough to go through the losing the Cubs have this season, but he’s enjoyed being around a group of guys who have been able to wear it well. Apart from playing outdoors every day — Tampa Bay and his more recent stop in Miami featured partially or totally indoor stadiums — he said the clubhouse handling adversity have been one of the big differences for him since coming to Chicago.
“Our record hasn’t been good,” he said bluntly. “Winning can always change everything, but honestly the clubhouse environment here with what we’ve gone through has been tremendous. The guys have stuck together, we’ve all had a good time, there hasn’t been too much tension. Usually when you’re on a team that’s struggling like we have this year, there tends to be a little more tension throughout the clubhouse, but this has been a good group of guys. Everyone goes about their business.
“And I think we kind of all know we’re working for something. Yeah, we want to win right now this year, but obviously the plan has been highlighted and very well-documented for everyone to know that the next couple years this team’s going to be really good.”
The thing is, though, that if recent history repeats itself, many of these faces won’t be around when next season comes and when the influx of highly touted prospects begins in earnest. Already Arismendy Alcantara’s strong play has forced Darwin Barney out of a job. But Ruggiano is under team control for another two seasons. If his bat stays hot, perhaps he’s one of the few veteran pieces that sticks around. And it’s in the clubhouse, too, where he wants to make big contributions. He has hopes of being a resource for any young player who needs advice, be it someone like Alcantara now or guys like Bryant and Schwarber down the line.
“I just want to be someone open to anyone who wants to talk to me,” he said. “I’ve played for a while. There’s some guys who’ve played way longer, and they have more advice than I have. But especially position players, especially outfielders, I feel like I could help them a lot. Hitting in certain situations, kind of have an idea of things that I’ve experienced that I can kind of throw at them. Some of these guys are 22 years old. When I was 22, I was fresh out of college. I can’t really imagine being in the big leagues in Chicago playing at 22 years old. But it forces them to mature quicker, and hopefully they’ll lean on some of the veteran guys for advice. I’m sure they will.”
Ruggiano has seen this all before. And he’s hoping to see it all again, with another run to the postseason included.