Rios the final AL participant in Derby
Blue Jays right fielder gets chance to showcase power stroke
TORONTO -- Just two seasons ago, the biggest knock on Alex Rios was that he didn't hit for enough power.
Oh, how the times have changed.
On Sunday, an official from Major League Baseball contacted Rios, who accepted an invitation to take part in the 2007 State Farm Home Run Derby in San Francisco.
"I'm more nervous than excited, but I'm going to enjoy it," said Rios, who will compete against seven other sluggers in Monday's All-Star event.
The fact that Rios was named to the Derby shows just how far the 26-year-old has come over his four-year career. When he was taken in the first round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, Rios was considered to be a five-tool player that could do it all. But as he advanced through the Jays' Minor League system, his power didn't develop as fast as many people hoped.
During his first season in the Major Leagues in 2004, Rios managed to hit just one home run in 426 at-bats. The following season, he hit just 10. It wasn't the kind of power production Toronto wanted, or could afford to have, coming from a corner outfielder position.
His lack of pop fueled rumors that the Jays might decide to go in a different direction. They stuck with him, though, and the dividends have started to pay off.
In 2006, Rios hit 17 home runs despite missing more than a month because of a staph infection. So far this season, he's already matched that total in 350 at-bats.
"I think power is the last thing to come for any young player," said Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "In his situation, he was still growing into his body and learning his swing, so I'm not surprised. It takes time and in his case, year-to-year, it keeps getting better and better."
On Monday night, Rios will have the opportunity to prove that he is one of the best up-and-coming power hitters in the game. Through 87 games this season, Rios is hitting .294 with 53 RBIs. He's tied for sixth in the American League in homers, trailing Minnesota's Torii Hunter by just two for the most hit by any AL outfielder.
"He's always been strong," said Jays center fielder Vernon Wells. "He's just continued to get stronger and learned how to hit for power. Now, the results are coming."
Rios, a two-time All-Star, will be taking part in his first career Home Run Derby. He leads the Jays in home runs (17), RBIs (53), and total bases (182). He hasn't homered since June 25, a span of 13 games, but is hitting .409 (9-for-22) with six walks and eight RBIs over his last six contests.
There were rumblings around the Jays clubhouse all week about whether or not Rios would be asked to participate in the Derby. On Saturday, Jays manager John Gibbons hoped Rios would garner some attention because he thinks his right fielder has a legitimate shot at winning the competition.
"He might win that thing if they ask him," Gibbons said. "He's a top candidate for that, no question."
That's something three-time All-Star Wells agreed with following Sunday's game against the Indians.
"As long as he's not too nervous, he's going to put on a show," Wells said. "He's just as strong as anybody who's in the competition and I think everyone will start to notice that once he steps to the plate. He's got some impressive pop and I'll be looking forward to watching it."
Rios will be joined by Detroit's Magglio Ordonez, Anaheim's Vladimir Guerrero and Minnesota's Justin Morneau on the AL squad. Representatives from the National League include St. Louis' Albert Pujols, Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, and defending champion Ryan Howard from Philadelphia.
This is the second year in a row the Jays have had somebody compete in the Derby. In 2006, third baseman Troy Glaus was eliminated in the first round after managing to go deep just once.
Rios doesn't consider himself a pure power hitter, like some of his fellow competitors, but he says it's going to be a privilege competing against some of baseball's best.
"I guess I can do a lot of things," Rios said. "I can hit for average -- I have pretty good defense -- but it's an honor to be recognized for this, too."
As for his strategy going into the competition?
"I'm just going to swing the bat as hard as I can," Rios said. "If I don't hit any, that's OK, too."
Gregor Chisholm is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.