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Alex Rios is finally reaching his potential

I thought this guy didn't care about baseball?
I thought this guy didn't care about baseball?

I remember watching a Blue Jays game way back when Alex Rios was brand new to the league. Everybody's favorite announcer, Joe Morgan, said that Rios reminds him of Dave Winfield. Those comments stuck with me. I went on to pick Rios in my fantasy league for years in a row. I always liked Rios. I always waited for him to reach his potential.

His potential has always been there. He was the 1st round pick (19th overall) of the Blue Jays back in 1999. He was a two time all star for Toronto in 2006 and 2007. Heck, we've even seen him play well at times here. May of 2010 and September of 2011 stick out.

There was always something though. In his 2006 All Star season, Rios hit .330/.383/.585 with 15 home runs and 53 RBI in the first half. Then Rios fouled a ball off of his toe and somehow contracted a staph infection. The infection cost him a chance to play in the All Star game, and Rios hit .261/.297/.411 with 2 homers and 29 RBI the rest of the way.

Alex got back on track in 2007 and turned in his finest complete season to date. He hit .297/.354/.498 with 24 homers, 85 RBI, another all star birth and even an impressive HR derby performance before losing out to Vladimir Guerrero in San Francisco. Rios was seemingly right back where he was before the staph infection hampered him the year before.

In 2008, Jays management decided they needed to lock down this five tool player. He signed his current 7 year $69 million dollar contract in April. Once Rios got paid though, he started to fall out of favor in Toronto. Instead of building on his impressive 2007, Rios took a bit of a step back. Alex struggled out of the gate, connecting for only 4 homers in the first half. He finished the year with 15 homers and a .798 OPS, both down from the previous year. He did hit 47 doubles and stole 32 bases, but questions started popping up if he'd ever reach his outstanding potential.

Then 2009 came. The Blue Jays had been stuck in a rut of having a winning record, but never good enough to wind up playing ball in October. Rios, as one of the teams highest paid players, started to feel the wrath of a frustrated fan base. In late May and early June, the Jays dropped 11 of 14 games, including an 8 game losing streak, and on June 4th, Alex was 0-5 with 5 strikeouts against the Angels. That night, he attended a Charity function and had a run in with a fan after refusing to sign a kids autograph. You can view it on Youtube here. The fact that the incident was caught on video, drew the ire of Toronto fans and media alike. Here is what Toronto Star writer Steve Simmons had to say about him after that game:

Alex Rios has turned into a $10-million embarrassment for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Never mind that he plays the outfield with a not-so-reckless indifference. Never mind that he has taken his five-tool gifts and squandered them with his lack of passion and apathy. Never mind that the hitting numbers aren't anywhere near where they are supposed to be.

All that pales when compared with his foolish act of the other night, exchanging swear words with a fan after turning down an autograph request from a kid, at a charity event no less. Available in today's technology for all to see on YouTube.

Whether management will see it this way or not, Rios essentially is done as a Blue Jay. Failing on the field can be accepted. Failing off the field reflects a certain lack of character. All the apologies in the world may not be able to correct that.

A couple of months after this, Rios was put on waivers and claimed by the White Sox. The Blue Jays took the opportunity to just let the White Sox have Rios and his contract. Because of the White Sox long standing problems in centerfield, Rios was switched from his usual right field to center. Rios acquisition also didn't sit well with 2005 World Series MVP Jermaine Dye, who after having a good first half was mired in a terrible second half slump. With the Rios acquisition, Dye saw the writing on the wall that his White Sox career was coming to an end. Meanwhile, Rios was also struggling badly. He hit .199/.229/.301 in 41 games for the 2009 Sox, and fans hearing of his Toronto escapades were quick to jump on the belief he didn't care about baseball.

In early 2010, Rios looked like the guy the Sox were paying all that money for. He hit a homer on opening day, and ended the 6-0 win with a remarkable diving play in the left centerfield gap. In May of 2010, Rios looked like someone who had figured it all out. He hit .344/.406/.700 that month, but his stats started to fall the rest of the season, especially in August and September when the Sox were fighting for a playoff berth. He finished the year hitting a respectable .284/.334/.457, but a lot of that was due to his amazing May.

We all remember what happened in 2011. Rios had a terrible season. His final line of .227/.265/.348 with 13 homers was saved by a September where he hit .307/.341/.533 and 5 homers. A lot of fans chalked it up to Rios performing when the season was already over with. What was clear though, was that Rios' albatross of a contract was going to handcuff the White Sox for years.

All that has turned around though here in 2012. Alex Rios is one of the American Leagues best players after switching form centerfield back to right. According to fangraphs, as of yesterday he has the 9th highest WAR among American League outfielders at 3.1. He is now hitting .318/.351/.545 with 18 homers, 26 doubles, 5 triples, 15/20 in stolen bases and 126 hits. It seems like every time he takes a swing the result is solid contact. I was at the game last night, and multiple people around me said when Rios was due up third in the 10th inning, "Rios will win it". And then he did. And it was awesome.

By the way, Alex's OPS of .896 would have ranked fourth in Dave Winfield's 22 seasons. Rios has always had the talent. He's always had the pretty home run swing. He's always had "the look". Rios has finally reached his potential, and the final result could be the White Sox playing deep into October.