ONEIL CRUZ, SHORTSTOP
|Born: October 4, 1998
Signed: Int’l Free Agent, 2015, Los Angeles Dodgers
How Acquired: Trade (with Angel German from the Dodgers for Tony Watson)
Country: Dominican Republic
Agent: Wasserman Media Group
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|Cruz is a very tall infielder with massive raw power. He grew five inches in about a year prior to signing with the Dodgers. He has a long swing that has led to contact issues, but the power is so great that he doesn’t need to pull the ball, so he can wait on pitches. At the time the Pirates acquired Cruz, scouts considered him unlikely to stay at short, but opinions on that score are more divided now. Cruz has a very strong arm; both that and his power draw 80 ratings from some scouts. The Pirates believe he’s athletic enough that he could stay at short, so they’re going to try him there at least for a while. Cruz also runs very well. The Pirates acquired him at the 2017 trade deadline for Tony Watson.
Cruz played mostly at third but started 13 games at short in the DSL. He hit well, for good gap power and with a good walk rate and passable K rate.
The Dodgers moved Cruz aggressively up to full-season ball, where he played the season at age 17. Overall, he struggled, which isn’t surprising given his age and experience. He did show a good deal of improvement after posting a dismal 133/189/169 line in April, and the power started to emerge. He had a lot of trouble with LHPs, putting up just a .504 OPS against them and .693 against RHPs. The Dodgers gave Cruz 46 starts at third and 30 at short. Again, not surprisingly, he had error problems at both positions. After the trade, the Pirates played him exclusively at third except for three innings at short. He committed eight errors in just 15 games at third. That left him with a cringeworthy .828 fielding percentage on the season. At the plate, he continued along the same lines, showing great power potential but struggling to put the bat on the ball.
Cruz returned to West Virginia and had a breakout season. He got off to a slow start, going 5-for-37 with 18 strikeouts in his first ten games. He then posted an OPS of .879 in May and 1.025 in June, before cooling off in July. Cruz missed most of August with a hip injury. He struck out once every three at-bats in April, but less than once every four and a half after that. He seems to have toned down his swing, but still hit for good power. He hammered LHPs for a 1.015 OPS, compared to .778 against RHPs. His play at short was a different matter, as he had 33 errors and didn’t show great range. At 6’6″ — and many people believe he’s actually an inch or two taller than that — he’s not likely to be able to move all that quickly, despite his athleticism. No observers outside the Pirates seem to believe he can stay at short.
The Pirates sent Cruz to Bradenton, but he didn’t play much there. He missed some time early in the season with a minor injury, then he missed two months, starting in late April, after fracturing his foot. A month after he returned, the Pirates promoted him to Altoona. Cruz hit very well in his limited time in Bradenton, albeit with a lot of strikeouts. Despite the limited time there, he wasn’t overwhelmed at Altoona, but he did seem much more tentative, taking more defensive swings than before. That probably accounts for the lack of HRs, although he also walked a lot more after the promotion. Overall, Cruz had a fairly large platoon split, posting an .864 OPS against RHPs and .729 against LHPs. He continued to play short exclusively and showed much-improved range. He also cut down on the errors, with his fielding percentage improving from .918 the previous season to .951. It might have improved more, but Cruz had a rash of errors soon after he got to AA, with errors in six straight games. He committed only two in his last 20 games.
Cruz was at the Pirates’ alternate training site during the summer. Shortly after he returned to the Dominican, he was involved in a traffic accident in which three people were killed. At last report, the Pirates had received no indication that Cruz was in any way at fault and they expected him to be in spring training.
Cruz took a big step forward, including his major league debut. The only down note in his season was missing a couple months with forearm tightness. He put up big numbers at Altoona, where the ballpark limits power, with a decent K rate. He had a reverse platoon split. The Pirates moved Cruz up to Indianapolis after the AA season ended and he had an impressive debut there, to put it mildly. The team brought him up to play in their final two games and he hit his first major league home run, as well as becoming the tallest shortstop in major league history. In his very first game, he hit a ball at the highest exit velocity by a Pirate since exit velocities began being recorded. Defensively, Cruz played short exclusively, as the Pirates seem increasingly convinced he can stay there. His error total was still high — 16 in 59 games — but that’ll probably always be a risk with him. Another positive at Altoona was that he did an excellent job in stealing bases.
The Pirates didn’t seriously consider keeping Cruz in the majors at the start of the season. Instead, they predictably waited until after he was safely past the risk of qualifying for super two status before calling him up. Cruz made the move look better by slumping badly early in the AAA season, but he would have been stuck there anyway. Cruz immediately drew attention as a Statcast sensation. He recorded the hardest-hit ball and highest volume on an infield throw of the Statcast era. That wasn’t all, either, as Cruz’ sprint speed ranked in the 98th percentile. At the plate, he ran into exactly the issues you’d expect: he chased pitches out of the strike zone (although not a drastically high number), he had trouble with LHPs (.532 OPS) and he struggled with breaking balls. On the other hand, Cruz crushed changeups to the point where pitchers mostly stopped throwing them to him by the end of the season. Swinging too much, though, was not an issue, as Cruz swung at fewer pitches than all but a handful of hitters in the game. He also saw fewer pitches in the strike zone. He did, however, make adjustments and he improved late in the year, posting an .884 OPS in September. His K rate dropped from 37.8% through August to 29.8% in September, and his walk rate increased from 7.0% to 9.2%. And, most notably, Cruz was on a pace for a 30-HR, 100-RBI season.
For all the discussion about Cruz ultimately moving off shortstop, he played there except for few games in left at Indianapolis, and one inning in left in the majors. He made some highlight-reel plays, but the metrics had his defense near the bottom. That included 17 errors in about half a season, which is poor but not terrible.
Nothing has really changed in Cruz’ profile. He has an extremely high ceiling and some significant flaws, and he needs time to adjust. His track record in the minors was that he consistently did adjust to new levels and he appeared to be in the process of doing that in the majors by the end of the season. A great deal of the Pirates’ success in 2023 will depend on him.
|2023: Major League Minimum|
|Signing Bonus: $950,000
MiLB Debut: 2016
MLB Debut: N/A
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2025
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2019
Options Remaining: 0 (USED: 2020, 2021, 2022)
MLB Service Time: 0.110
|July 2, 2015: Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an international free agent.
July 31, 2017: Traded by the Los Angeles Dodgers with Angel German to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Tony Watson.
November 20, 2019: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.