Nine games is all 24-year-old shortstop Oniel Cruz played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2023. In what began as a promising beginning, Cruz’s season ended in disappointing fashion.
On his weekly radio show with Ron Cook and Joe Starkey on 93.7 The Fan, manager Derek Shelton confirmed Cruz won’t return this season after suffering a grueling injury during the second week of play. He slid awkwardly into home plate on April 9 against the White Sox and fractured his left ankle, eventually being placed on the 60-day injured list.
Benches cleared in Pittsburgh! pic.twitter.com/CBiJzLciX6— White Sox Talk (@NBCSWhiteSox) April 9, 2023
Assistant General Manager Kevin Graves told the station on Sunday the power-hitting phenom would need substantial improvement to retake the field in black and gold before the year concludes on Oct. 1.
“We’re really letting this play out,” Graves said. “It would take a meaningful development to see him on a Major League field this year.”
Graves mentioned he didn’t want to rule any possibilities out but shaded a gray cloud over the skies of a potential Cruz return in the final three weeks.
In 40 plate appearances, Cruz hit one home run, drove in four, stole three bases, and hit .250 with a .375 slugging percentage. He finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting last season after smashing 17 home runs and totaling 54 RBI, 13 doubles, 10 steals and a .233/.294/.450 slash line with a .744 OPS.
Cruz’s initial timeline projected a late-August, early September return. At the time, during the midst of an eventual 20-8 run, a comeback down the stretch looked likely and ideal before the severity of the damage was truly understood.
“It was a significant loss for us,” Shelton told 93.7 The Fan. “I think it was a significant loss for a couple reasons - the strides that we saw him make at the plate just in the short period of time in Spring Training. The ability to shorten up, to swing at strikes.”
Oniel Cruz is one of three Pirates most important to the future of baseball on the North Shore for years to come. Paul Skenes, Henry Davis and Oniel Cruz have the most on their plate to deliver high-impact results on the mound or at the plate, highlighted by Cruz front and center.
I, like many, was significantly looking forward to seeing how Cruz would develop as a hitter (fewer strikeouts) and fielder (fewer errors) in 2023 along with his progression as a vocal leader. A potential force at the plate and on the base paths, Cruz profiles as, and stated he was hoping to accomplish a 30-30 season and break onto the scene as a unicorn in the sport.
This season ends as nothing short of a disappointment. It’s nothing Cruz can control other than learning how to slide - especially into home. A productive campaign could have also solidified extension talks to lock up the 6’7” shortstop before the price tag skyrockets exponentially out of the Bucs’ range.
It’s likely Cruz will play in either the Arizona Fall League or winter ball at the discretion of the Pirates. He needs considerable innings in the field to work on his range, arm accuracy, and overall footwork at short. In the box, Cruz needs increased plate discipline to play off his stupid power.
Cruz represents the greatest unknown on the Pirates’ roster, entering 2024 with more questions than answers.