Oneil Cruz is a unicorn.
If you think you’ve seen anything like who the Pittsburgh Pirates have manning the lead role inside the diamond, you’re lying to yourself.
The tallest shortstop in MLB history at 6’7”, Cruz brings a Pandora's box of abilities to the the baseball field both as a batter and defender.
Cruz threw a baseball to first the fastest of any player in the Statcast era, dating back to 2015. The 97.8mph throw was faster than almost every PITCHER the Pirates have deployed in 2022.
Oneil Cruz with the fastest throw (97.8 mph) recorded by an infielder in the Statcast era!!! pic.twitter.com/pSIdnD78tT— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) July 14, 2022
Cruz can hit the ball a mile out of the ballpark and easily recorded the hardest-hit ball for the Bucs this season only days after being promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis.
The 23-year-old from Nizao, Dominican Republic is batting .221 with 6 home runs and 21 RBI in 30 games, climbing the Pirates rookie ranks in runs batted in factoring the number of games played.
That’s the good. Now the bad. At least the concern.
Cruz has struck out 42 times in 113 at-bats while walking just five times. He has stolen four bags, but has been caught stealing three times. His four errors in 257.2 innings contributes to a .975 fielding percentage. In the Minors, Cruz committed 96 errors at shortstop, good for a .926 fielding percentage, in 2,671 innings. To sum up his struggles, Cruz committed an error roughly every 28 innings, or every three games, during his six years in the Minors.
Oneil Cruz JUST missed Josh VanMeter here on the throw to first lol pic.twitter.com/Cijk1tfOcO— Mr Matthew CFB (@MrMatthewCFB) July 26, 2022
A move off of shortstop would make Pirates social media channels implode and question the organization for potentially not believing in Cruz’s defensive abilities.
While his arm strength and range are apparent, Cruz provides highs and lows that are associated with an inconsistent defender.
The Pirates could move Cruz to the outfield, or first base, or even become the designated hitter, but that certainly won’t come in 2022.
Cruz is the main draw for a 40-58 Pirates team that has lost eight of its last 10 and three straight. A 6’7” lefty batting shortstop who hits missiles over the 21-foot high Clemente wall at PNC Park is the only thing keeping the Pirates relevant following rapid inconsistency from fellow rookies and the demotion of Roansy Contreras.
The overarching question regarding Cruz is this: Do you extend him… now?
In today’s game where strikeouts and batting average are minimized when compared to home runs, Cruz provides the most value of anyone in the entire organization either in the Majors or Minors.
The issue of batting average aside, which is still important and rising for Cruz on his recent hot streak, he has the talent to be a dynamic threat in a Major League lineup for the next decade.
Ben Cherington committed to Ke’Bryan Hayes before the season, agreeing on an eight-year, $70 million deal to lock up the Bucs third baseman through at least 2029 with the most money ever allocated to a player in Pirates history.
Would a similar contract be enticing to Cruz?
Cruz Missile! pic.twitter.com/MoeC6fkI7a— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) July 26, 2022
To put it bluntly, Cruz is going to hit, but his defense will continue to waver. He’s not going to play shortstop his entire career, but the Pirates don’t need to worry about forever when the now could take shape in 2023.
Cruz is going to continue his improvement at the plate with more at-bats against big league pitching and there is no reason to believe he won’t be a capable threat at the plate for years to come.
Cruz is going to have ups and downs, be hot and cold, strikeout and hit one out, throw a ball fast enough to narrowly beat a runner out and throw one over the first baseman’s head.
Let it play out. Let Cruz decide it himself with his play, not take the cards out of his hands.
He’s going to rake, even if only hitting .220. The Pirates can not let a talent like Cruz slip away. He doesn’t reach free agency until what seems like a lifetime from now in 2028, but the more he improves, the more the price will go up.
Locking in Cruz long term is a risk for the Bucs, but its time to make the big moves, even the small moves, if you’re Ben Cherington.
A rare unicorn sighting exemplifies seeing is believing and its time to see more from both sides to agree to a deal similar to Hayes’ before its too late.