When I spoke with Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm director John Baker last month, I asked how close Oneil Cruz was to the majors. Baker described Cruz as “very close” at the time.
“He can fly. He’s so fast,” Baker said. “Probably throw a ball 96 MPH off the mound. He can hit a ball 120 MPH with the bat. It’s about him remaining consistently engaged, which he’s done all year this year when he’s healthy, and he’s been an asset to the team when he wasn’t playing. Very close to the major leagues.”
Cruz will get the call to the majors today, likely making his MLB debut tonight. He has a .310/.375/.594 line in the minors this year, with 17 home runs, including five in the last week in Triple-A.
There’s not much question about his offensive skills. The main question among Pirates fans is about his defense, specifically whether the 6-foot-7 athlete can remain at the shortstop position.
“He’s played great defense at shortstop,” Baker said. “Coming in, the questions I’ve had about him, not knowing him, not seeing him play, the things that you hear are the ability to play shortstop – this guy makes plays on the field that nobody in the world makes.”
When I was in Altoona last month, I saw one of those plays. Cruz started on a shift, playing deep near the second base bag, and ranged all the way over into foul territory in left field to make a catch on a foul ball. Watch the play below:
— Tim Williams (@TimWilliamsPBN) October 2, 2021
Cole Tucker showed off his athletic ability and range in a similar way last night. Cruz almost makes it look effortless here, still making the catch after a bit of a late break off the ball.
That play alone doesn’t tell us that Cruz can stick at shortstop in the majors.
What it does is give an idea of the type of shortstop Cruz could become in the majors.
He might not be traditionally proficient at the position, to where every single ground ball to shortstop will end up inside a black hole, transported through space and time to first base before the batter can reach safely.
Instead, he’s a guy who is capable of making plays no one else can make, as Baker said.
He essentially has center field range, right in the middle of the baseball diamond, while still maintaining the ability to field ground balls with tremendous range.
The Pirates have Ke’Bryan Hayes to his right, and a number of athletic options for second base. There is some margin for error with Cruz on ground balls, where he wouldn’t need to cover as much ground as most shortstops.
Still, he can cover that ground, and more.
Having Cruz to back up Hayes, or help out with plays over the middle becomes a bit of a luxury with this team’s defensive potential. The concerns about his traditional shortstop defense are mitigated by the people around him.
That opens Cruz up to be the playmaker he is.
And in a league where no one really stays in their traditional positions, but instead shift around the field batter-to-batter, playmakers who can cover a lot of ground become more valuable.
Can Oneil Cruz stick at shortstop?
No one knows.
Should the Pirates keep him there as long as possible?
Play the playmaker at a playmaker position.