Analysis: Pirates transmit star power to prioritize development of Oneil Cruz “unicorn” perspective


The fact that Oneil Cruz won’t be on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ opening day roster might have surprised a frustrated fanbase, but shouldn’t come as a shock, given their history of dealing with valuable prospects. with children’s gloves.

When the Pirates went for the 6-foot-7 shortstop, rated their No. 1 prospect by Baseball America, against Triple-A Indianapolis on Tuesday, it was just business as usual for a team that delayed its beginnings in the last decade.

Cruz, 23, showed something the Pirates desperately need, offering the potential for a sense of star power. He hit laser beam line drives and moonshots for home runs, then flashed a megawatt smile to match. What Cruz didn’t provide was some type of on-field consistency to earn a starting role.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton, who called the move a “developmental decision,” told the Tribune-Review on Sunday that what to do with Cruz was the topic of daily discussion during spring training.

“We have to play what’s best for Oneil and we have to play what’s best for the Pirates,” Shelton said. “Oneil rode and had a good spring. Where we have to be careful is that he has played (63) games in Double-A and six in Triple-A. We have to be very careful how his development is going to go forward, how he is going to fit into the Pirates not just this year but in the future. Above all, Oneil must be put in the best conditions to succeed.

With the manipulation of service time at the center of collective bargaining negotiations during the lockout, the Pirates had to consider the new CBA prospect promotion incentive. It’s designed to reward teams if a top prospect makes the opening day roster, receives a full year of service time this season, and finishes in the top three as Rookie of the Year, Cy Young. or MVP voting in his first three seasons. Eligible teams receive a selection after the first round of the MLB Draft.

Cruz would have been a draw against PNC Park for the home opener against the Chicago Cubs on April 12, but two factors hurt his chances of making the opening day roster: Cruz indicating his preference for remaining at shortstop and his inexperience in the outfield, especially with an open contest for a rookie corner position.

The Pirates focus on defense and have a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop in Kevin Newman. Despite Cruz’s athleticism, strength and arm reach, it’s still debatable whether a player of his size is best suited for shortstop or another position. Cruz did not help his cause by committing a mistake there against Tampa Bay.

The Pirates tried to move Cruz to the outfield last week, but he’s still very raw, so breaking him to a new position isn’t something they want to do at the major league level. Indianapolis already has a packed outfield, however, with Jared Oliva, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski and Travis Swaggerty also on the 40-man roster.

On Friday, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington called Cruz a “unicorn” on MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM.

“We believe he can play short. I know he believes he can play short, which he can, and I really think the player’s opinion matters,” Cherington said. a single player. He does unusual things on the pitch. Our job is to help him become the most impactful player possible so he can help the Pirates win. There are many different paths he can take.

Cruz doesn’t have much to prove at home plate in the minors. Missed a month last season with a pulled right forearm but still went down .292/.346/.536 with 15 doubles, 12 home runs and 40 RBIs in 63 games at Double-A Altoona . That earned him a promotion in late September at Indianapolis, where he hit .524 (11 for 21) with five homers in six games to earn a call-up to the Pirates’ final two games as a reward.

Cruz has proven he can play in the big leagues this spring, batting .333 (5 for 15) with a 1.066 OPS in five Grapefruit League games. He homered twice, driving in three runs and scoring four while striking out three and scoring zero. Cruz drilled a single against the Tigers that was recorded at 113.4 mph last week. He also went 0 for 4 against the New York Yankees on Sunday, showing he has room to improve on breakout shots on strikeouts against Gerrit Cole and Barrett Loseke.

“I feel like I’ve demonstrated a lot,” Cruz said last week, “but I guess I have to keep demonstrating.”

The Pirates have a habit of delaying the debut of their main prospects. Andrew McCutchen made his major league debut on June 4, 2009, Starling Marte on July 26 the following year, Gerrit Cole on June 11 the year after and Gregory Polanco on June 10 the year after. after. In 2016, the Pirates promoted Jameson Taillon on June 8, Tyler Glasnow on July 7 and Josh Bell the following day. Mitch Keller made his debut on Memorial Day 2019 but returned to the minors until June 12.

That philosophy has not changed under Cherington, who replaced Neal Huntington as general manager in November 2019. In a two-game preview, Cruz recorded the hardest-hit ball by a pirate in the Statcast era on a single with an exit speed of 118.2 mph for his first MLB success; the next day, he homered 408 feet to right field in the final.

Getting a taste of the majors only made 23-year-old Cruz want more.

“That’s the goal, that’s the mindset – not just to get to the big leagues, but to stay in the big leagues,” Cruz said on March 20. “So my mindset right now is working double time.”

Just as Cruz smashed an ankle-high pitch for his first major league home run, he did the feat again for a 413-foot homer against the Detroit Tigers in his first Grapefruit League game this spring. The golf swing was a feat of size, bat speed and strength, which had his teammates laughing at its absurdity.

“I thought the ball was about to bounce and he cut it off,” Pirates outfielder Ben Gamel said. “He’s pretty talented, man. He’s 6-7, 6-8 and he looks like a great leaguer.

Cruz looks like a big leaguer but the Pirates will keep him waiting, sending the signal that they’ll decide when their top prospect is ready to not just make it to the big leagues but stay.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Kevin by email at or via Twitter .


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