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Why delay Cruz’s move to outfield?

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Yankees Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Colleague Nathan Hursh recently provided an update on Oneil Cruz’s season in the Dominican Winter League, noting that the prized prospect was having his troubles in the field while toiling for the Gigantes del Cibao. Hursh noted that Cruz had made six errors in his first dozen games at shortstop, which led me to wonder just where we might see the imposing youngster when he finally does arrive at PNC Park.

Speaking to The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel in November, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said that generally, he likes to keep those capable of playing shortstop at that position for as long as possible “realizing at some point you want to get your best players on the field and make adjustments.” Cherington said that Cruz, despite his 6-foot-7 frame, played well enough defensively at short in the minors to “project him as a major league shortstop.”

Given the Pirates are high on Liover Peguero, another young shortstop and one of the pieces who came to the Pirates from Arizona in the Starling Marte trade last year, Cherington then pulled out the well-worn line about it being a “good problem to have” multiple high-level prospects who play the same position. Essentially, he said the club at some point would expose Cruz to other positions, like the Pirates did with Cole Tucker this year, but that wouldn’t mean that Cruz was no longer a shortstop.

Cherington obviously knows the game, but I just can’t see Cruz sticking at short for the long haul. It’s not just his height that concerns me. At this point, Cruz is listed at 215 pounds, but he’s only 22 years old. I remember a young Gregory Polanco, who looked sleek at that age, but now – nearly eight years later — he’s in the 240 neighborhood if not more.

So why not move Cruz now? I realize that corner outfielders don’t carry as much value as shortstops in the prospect realm, but if Cruz’s ultimate position is right field, I’d rather see him get as many innings under his belt in that spot while wearing Altoona and Indianapolis uniforms than to wait until he’s big-league ready offensively to make the switch.

His situation is reminiscent – at least to me – of Josh Bell. I always wondered why the Pirates insisted on keeping Bell in the outfield while he was making his way through the system when it seemed that – based on his body type and the fact that Polanco was blocking him — he might eventually have to move to first base. And I remember reading that talent evaluators thought it was smarter to keep Bell in the outfield, where he had more value, for as long as possible before making a position switch. But perhaps if Bell had started playing first base a year or two earlier in the minor leagues, he would have been much more comfortable – and effective – there by the time he got to PNC Park. Essentially, he wasted three years in the minors playing out of position, although admittedly he did suffer through some injuries in his early days in the organization.

Right field seems like the right spot for Cruz. The Pirates likely will have a vacancy there after this season, with the club moving out from under Polanco’s contract, and there doesn’t appear to be any heir apparent waiting in the wings. If both Anthony Alford and Jared Oliva prove to be capable big league players this year, perhaps one of them could move to right next year. But I’m not banking on that happening. And as far as minor league prospects are concerned, Travis Swaggerty – the club’s top draft pick in 2018 – is the highest rated outfield prospects in the system. But Swaggerty, who turns 24 in August, is more of a center field type and he has yet to play a game above the High-A level, thanks in part to COVID-19.

So why not move Cruz to right field immediately? Assuming his legal issues are not a factor, he could get at-bats at Altoona until midseason and then make the jump to Indianapolis, where he could finish out the minor league season year before getting his feet wet as a September call-up to PNC Park.

Cruz will turn 23 in October, and there’s no reason why the club should hesitate to roll him out as their Opening Day starter in right field in 2022. But he needs to have some outfield innings under his belt. It would be a mistake, in terms of his defensive development, to delay his move.