BRADENTON, Fla. – Cal Ripken was one of the tallest shortstops in baseball for the longest time. At 6′ 4″, he didn’t have the typical build for the shortstop position, which is a position that typically ranges on the shorter side.
According to a study done last year by Sports on Earth, the average shortstop height is going up, passing a 6′ 1″ average for the first time last year. That included two players who are 6′ 4″ — Corey Seager and Carlos Correa — among a large group of players who are 6′ 3″.
The shortstop position is growing. But what the Pirates are trying with Oneil Cruz in the minors right now is even pushing that trend to an extreme.
The 19-year-old Cruz was acquired last year by the Pirates in the Tony Watson trade. He was playing third base, after originally being listed as a shortstop.
The thing about him being a shortstop is that he’s 6′ 6″, well above the trend of current tall shortstops.
The Pirates play guys at their most valuable position, which is why they’re going to try Cruz at the shortstop spot, more than third base. A lot of players get new positions to add versatility, but Cruz is making the move on a more full-time basis for now.
“It’s probably going to be primarily shortstop,” Pirates’ farm director Larry Broadway said of Cruz’s playing time this year. “He’ll get some looks at other spots, but how his body works — the ranginess, and some things that he does there — we want to exhaust that, see how many reps we can get there, and see how it looks.”
Cruz doesn’t have that typical frame for a shortstop, but the Pirates believe his athleticism allows him to play the position.
“I think he moves well,” Broadway said. “He’s a big, long-legged guy, but he moves well. Watching him make plays, watching him go from his left to his right and make routine plays, he’s got feel, he’s got instincts there, and just the speed of the game and internal clock works well for him. He hasn’t had any problems bending down, being a waist bender where he doesn’t get into his legs and use it.”
The problem is that Cruz is only 19, and while he has a skinny, athletic frame now, he will add some weight as he gets older and fills out. That might make things difficult if he wants to stick at the position for the long-term. For now, he could probably play the position, with an eventual move to third base being the best case scenario for the long-term.
Cruz has value if he can remain at shortstop, or even third base. He’s got some of the best raw power in the system, and some of that showed up last year. The Pirates are hoping more of the power shows up in games going forward.
“I think he’s super young and really hasn’t been exposed to a whole lot of approach to hitting,” Broadway said. “I think it’s just grip it and rip it. Continue to focus on that and what his actual approach is going to be, and just commitment and conviction to his plan is really where he needs to take the next step.”
The current approach from Cruz leads to a lot of strikeouts, with a rate around 30% last year. Broadway said that comes from immaturity during certain counts, where Cruz is swinging away. But there are times when he shows a better approach at the plate.
“There are times when he’s got two strikes, and he knows the game is on the line and he wants to do something, and you’ll see him totally different,” Broadway said. “He’ll stay on a pitch and rope it the other way. Other times it looks like he’s just swinging. That’s just the product of awareness and intentionality in his at-bats.”
Cruz is a very interesting prospect due to his power potential and athleticism. I don’t see him as a shortstop in the long-term, although I’m sure there was a time when people said Cal Ripken wouldn’t be a shortstop due to his height. That’s not enough to bank on Cruz sticking, but it’s worth the experiment while he’s in the lower levels. I see him moving to third base eventually if he can stick in the infield, and having enough athleticism to play a corner outfield spot otherwise.