10-28-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
It was last year in September.
My wife and I were tired of being cooped up in the house with COVID restrictions and most of us had no idea it’d still be with us a full year later, but I digress.
We went to a little town called Davis in West Virginia and got a little cabin, you know, just to sit somewhere else in isolation. The thing is we were slipping away to shut off so imagine how annoyed she was when news broke that Oneil Cruz was involved in a deadly crash in his native Dominican Republic.
I didn’t write anything initially, instead opting to call back on personal experience and caution everyone to wait for more reliable news. Not that the reporters were doing a poor job, just because when it comes to law enforcement in that country, let’s just say I wasn’t comfortable running with initial reports.
That feels like an eternity ago.
The entire story arc took us full circle and he entered 2021 right back where he left off, one of the most intriguing and close to the majors impact prospects, and boy did he impact.
In what to me was a bit of a surprise he started off in AA Altoona and despite an injury costing him time he hit .292 with an .882 OPS and 12 bombs.
AAA didn’t slow him down, in only 6 games he hit 5 more dingers .524 batting average with an OPS of 1.941.
MLB didn’t hurt him either, in only two games he popped one and somehow racked up a 0.1 WAR.
The dude is for real, at least at the plate.
In the field, well that’s a different animal. The team and reportedly Cruz himself, are passionate that he can play short stop. I’ll give it to him, for a very large man, he is slick, he can get to everything and his arm is a cannon.
Technique wise, he has some work to do if Short Stop is truly going to be his position. His arm makes up for much of it, but he has a bit of a double clutch tendency before throws and it takes guys a ton of reps to get good at leading the second baseman for double play turns.
The Pirates have a need for his bat, but they also put a ton of emphasis on defense this season and I’ll be as blunt as possible here, if he is planted at Short, it’ll be a direct contradiction to that effort without some pretty remarkable improvement from the young man.
Again, I don’t want to make it sound like he’s a complete train wreck in the hole, he’s not, he’s just not as good as several options this team has. In other words, there are better ways to get his bat in the lineup.
So the go to is hey, make him the DH if the NL adopts one. Well, I’d hate to waste that arm and athleticism. When you find a guy with 4 or 5 tools, it’s generally bad practice to tell him 1 or 2 of them are of no use to you.
Center field is occupado for the time being. So that leaves really Right Field, Left Field or 1st Base.
Now if the bat is ready, I’m not sure how you start him in AAA, especially knowing how badly this team needs some of what he can do. But I’m not sure I want MLB to be his training ground for learning the outfield.
By most accounts he’s a smart kid, and the team had started trotting him out there during batting practice in Altoona to shag some flies so it’s not like they haven’t started to make the obvious choice to at least expand his skill set.
If he starts in AAA and plays short stop, I personally am going to have some questions. I understood leaving him there because he had some very real work to do with the bat, adjustments he’s successfully made I might add. There was no need to introduce something else while working on arguably the more important thing for the player, but now the Pirates find themselves in an awkward position.
If he starts in AAA learning Right Field, OK, they’re getting him ready for the jump. Short Stop, and honestly I’d rather see him learn up here.
The cynics out there, of which I count myself most of the time, will absolutely look at this as service time manipulation. And if he starts at SS, me too. It’s not often I’ll truly make a deal out of this, for instance I was absolutely fine with Hayes starting 2020 in the minors (OK training site), but Cruz has shown the bat is where it needs to be.
If I’m the Pirates I have him play outfield 80% of Spring Training and I make this call more for what’s behind him and his skill set more than his inability to play the infield. Have him learn there where the wind eats up even the best outfielders. Have him hit the cutoff man in games that don’t count. Have him learn how to not collide with Cal Mitchell, not Bryan Reynolds.
Some prospects hit different, and that describes Cruz to a tee. The last prospect that really had this much expectation is Andrew McCutchen. That’s not to say we weren’t excited to see others, but be honest, Hayes on his way up looked a lot more like the Hayes of 2021 than the Hayes we saw in 2020. Reynolds was a nobody, hell Jason Martin was ranked ahead of him. Pleasant surprise doesn’t even begin to touch what Reynolds has been.
Mitch Keller was THE pitching prospect, but still expected to top out as a middle of the rotation arm.
Cruz is expected to help carry a team on his lanky frame, and how the Pirates handle the next step with him will help write that story. Handle it right and they have a real live star in the making. Handle it wrong and they have a guy who can hit but makes it tough to put him in the field.
Either way, if we have MLB baseball in 2022, Cruz is going to be one of the very best reasons to watch, and dare I say one of the biggest reasons for hope.