Oneil Cruz, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Future Slugger

Oneil Cruz bats on October 2, during his debut week at PNC Park.

(Gene J Puskar/AP News)

Oneil Cruz bats on October 2, during his debut week at PNC Park.

It is October 3, the Pirates’ last game of the season. With no hope of making the playoffs, PNC park is near empty, but the fans there are glued to the batter’s box, where the 6’7, 22-year-old shortstop, Oneil Cruz stands. With 1 out in the 9th, the Pirates are down 6-1 with a runner on first, this will be one of the final at-bats of the season. Down 0-2, Cruz waits on the pitch from Mychal Givens, the Reds’ reliever. He throws a changeup low, but Oneil Cruz goes down and hits it 408 feet into right-center. Fireworks are set over the eye, as he rounds the bases. 

Going into the 2022 season, there was a certain buzz around Cruz. During spring training, he lived up to the expectations. Although it was a small sample size of just 15 plate appearances, Cruz hit .333 with 2 home runs, which seemed like enough to propel him to the MLB roster, and maybe a starting role. After all, he was with the big league club at the end of the season last year. But, on March 29, he was optioned to Triple-A. 

This decision by the Pirates front office was met with lots of pushback from the fans. Although Cruz had only played 6 Triple-A games, the decision still confused some fans and members of the media. It is easy to look at this decision by the Pirates front office as service time manipulation, which is where a team intentionally holds a prospect from getting to the majors in an attempt to retain an extra year on the player’s contract in the future. 

This is a tactic often used by teams who are tanking, most notably the Cubs, who infamously kept Kris Bryant in the minor leagues for the first 12 games of the season, just enough to grant the Cubs one more year of control. Although the new collective bargaining agreement has made some positive changes regarding service time, control of Cruz’s contract may still be part of the Pirate’s motives for sending him to the minors.

When asked by the media, manager Derek Shelton said the decision to send Cruz to the minors was a “development decision.” They believe Cruz needs to improve on his strikeout rate and get time in the outfield. This comes as somewhat of a surprise, as the shortstop position for the Pirates is not very deep at the moment. 

As of now, the decision to not put Cruz on the MLB roster looks justified. In 191 plate appearances in Triple-A, Cruz has posted a 100 wRC+, meaning he is an average Triple-A East hitter. On top of that, Cruz has posted a 25.1% strikeout rate. These are not the numbers you expect from a top prospect like Cruz, but he has heated up recently in Triple-A, after a very slow start.

Currently ranked the number 14 prospect in baseball by Baseball America, there is reason to believe he can still succeed despite his struggles in Triple A. Cruz is still very young. As a 23-year-old in Triple-A, Cruz is still about 3.4 years below the league average age. 

The son of Rafael Cruz, a former pitcher in Japan’s NPB, Cruz has taken an interesting path to top prospect. Originally signed by the Dodgers in 2015 out of the Dominican Republic, Cruz was traded as part of the Tony Watson deal, which sent him to the Pirates. After returning to the Dominican Republic during the 2020 offseason, Cruz was involved in a traffic accident that killed 3. After a complicated sequence of events, he was eventually dropped of the charges. But this incident was very hard on Cruz. For a while, he thought he would never play baseball again. 

But he did play baseball again, and he played it very well. In his 2021 season, which he split between Double-A and Triple-A, he had a .310/.375/.594 slash line, with 17 home runs. This was the performance that originally elevated him to top prospect status. Now, Pirates fans wait for the day Cruz once again graces the PNC park dirt with his 110 miles per hour line drives and his home runs into the river.



Statistics gathered from Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant.