With each pronouncement, it becomes a bit clearer. As the trade deadline approached, Kevin Gausman said he didn’t want to leave. And when he was kept, he said he would prefer to stay in San Francisco. Drew Smyly said the same, a pair of free agents who got a 60-game taste of the organization and want more.
For Darin Ruf, signing a minor league deal with the Giants was less a springboard to a bigger contract and more a lifeline to the major leagues. After three seasons in South Korea, he returned to the United States with a wife who was pregnant with their second child and hope for a second chance as a major leaguer, especially with their older child now in preschool and kindergarten coming. They wanted a firmer home here.
After a terrific season and just like Gausman and Smyly, Ruf wants to return. The Giants’ quest to make the organization a destination is working.
In what was the strangest and most challenging season of his life, Ruf said this was one of the most enjoyable experiences of his career, which began in 2012 with the Phillies.
“I loved every minute of the season,” Ruf said over the phone Thursday. “Aside from being away from my family. But the whole organization was awesome. I’d love to be a part of it next year.”
Unlike Gausman and Smyly, the decision will be solely up to the Giants. Ruf is one of the 11 Giants eligible for arbitration, still under team control, and the club will be dealing with a 40-man roster crunch as well as active roster-maneuverability questions. A 28-man roster allowed the Giants to carry a bat that crushed lefties and could play passable first base and left field, but Ruf was more valued as either a DH or pinch-hitter.
He began (briefly) in a platoon with Brandon Belt and ended in a platoon with Alex Dickerson, helping the club to play 60 meaningful games — although not one in the postseason. There was little expected of the Giants, and with exceeding expectations comes a sense of accomplishment, Ruf said, which helped keep the club so upbeat in a season that could have been a drag.
When Ruf signed with Farhan Zaidi’s team — Zaidi had traded for him with the Dodgers, then had checked in with Ruf during his KBO tenure — he wasn’t sure what to expect with 13 coaches under Gabe Kapler. He went from so little oversight overseas, especially regarding his swing, to help everywhere he looked.
“As a player, 13 different voices could be overwhelming at times when they’re not on the same page, but I feel like they did such a great job of knowing when to say something,” said Ruf, who slashed .276/.370/.517 with five home runs in 100 plate appearances. “And the message was always pretty much the exact same. So it was easy as a player to get on board with what they were saying and to try the things that they would recommend.”
He was appreciative of the whole crew, but especially assistant coach Mark Hallberg, whom he talked with plenty around the cage and in the outfield. Both had overseas experience — Hallberg taught in Saudi Arabia — and forged a bond that helped his comfort. What also helped his comfort was a swing that he could rely upon again.
One offseason after a campaign in the Korea Baseball Organization, Ruf remembered, he sent a YouTube highlight clip to a bunch of his friends/former teammates, who noticed that of the 30-something home runs contained therein, he had a different setup in “10 or 20” of them.
For the most part, he had been on his own. In the KBO, the coaches “don’t try to mess with the foreign hitter too much.
“Over there I would really go off of how I felt in the box that day, roll with that,” said Ruf, who is not unique in crediting the three-headed hitting team of Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind, a crew that focused hitters’ mindsets on pitches they could do damage to. “Here I got to establish something that I could try to repeat over and over. … It worked.”
He’s correct about that, and it should have earned him a major league spot somewhere, even if not with San Francisco. The 34-year-old now carries a .916 OPS in the majors against lefties in 383 plate appearances, which is enticing especially to an American League team that will have a DH. It is expected, although not official, that the National League will revert back for at least next season to having pitchers hit before a new CBA has to be worked out.
If the NL adopts the DH, though? “That would be great,” Ruf said.
It would further his chances of sticking on a team that would have a greater use for him, a team that has made itself attractive to players both inside and out.