MESA, Ariz. – As a former minor league player in the farm systems of the Dodgers and Rays, outfielder Justin Ruggiano developed a sharp eye for evaluating prospects while playing with the likes of Matt Kemp, Evan Longoria and David Price.
And before joining the Cubs in December, Ruggiano played with several of the top prospects the Marlins received in a blockbuster trade with the Blue Jays.
But in a short time, Ruggiano says he already sees a difference in the level of talent the Cubs possess.
“This system is probably stocked a little more throughout,” Ruggiano said Sunday. “The Marlins have the majority of their prospects in the big leagues, but they’re in that rebuilding stage right now. I’m very, very impressed. I haven’t seen a system that is as well-stocked with position players since I was in Tampa. And that’s their game – keeping their rich farm system.
“Back with the Dodgers in 2005-06, that system was stocked throughout. And this right here is as good, if not better, than the systems I came up with. It’s an exciting time for Cubs fans, and for me. I get to see all these guys and watch them contribute and help this ballclub going forward.”
The Cubs’ “Core Four” of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler won’t open the season with the major league team, and probably won’t all reach the majors until the end of the 2015 season.
Ruggiano, 31, recalls the talent on his Double-A Jacksonville team in 2005 that produced 17 future major leaguers – including Kemp, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley, James Loney, Joel Hanrahan and Jonathan Broxton.
Cubs starter Edwin Jackson, who made his major league debut 2 years earlier, pitched in 11 games for the Suns.
“That team was stacked,” Ruggiano recalled.
As for Ruggiano, the Cubs hope he can help balance the lineup with production from the right side, especially against tough left-handers.
But nothing has come as tough to Ruggiano as his own advancement.
He played high school ball in Austin, Texas, but wasn’t recruited by the University of Texas. He went to Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas, before transferring to Texas A&M, and eventually signing with the Dodgers as a 25th-round draft pick in 2004 for $1,000.
“In terms of setting me up for my future, [Texas A&M] didn’t do that, but I left there with confidence going into pro ball,” Ruggiano said. “And that program did a good job of instilling that confidence in the players and getting them ready for pro ball.”
And batting at Wrigley Field – even when the strong winds blow in from Lake Michigan – won’t seem as tough as his time at cavernous Marlins Park, where he batted .262 in two seasons.
“Very tough,” Ruggiano said. “The toughest. I want to make that clear. It’s the toughest park I’ve hit in.
“Tougher than AT&T Park [in San Francisco]. The ball dies. It stops.”