First Pitch: Oneil Cruz and Prospect Stars

The Pittsburgh Pirates are calling up Oneil Cruz.

At this point, the window for Super Two has likely passed, which means that if Cruz is up for good, he will be under control through 2028, with arbitration starting in 2026.

A new factor added in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement ties Cruz’s service time to the Rookie of the Year voting. If Cruz finishes in the top two of the voting, he gets a full year of service time this year.

That would essentially shave a year of control from the current projection, making Cruz a free agent after the 2027 season, and making his first arbitration year in 2025.

The Pirates could easily get that extra year back if Cruz struggles in either 2023 or 2024. Right now he has a few days of service time. If he struggled and was optioned back to the minors for a month in one of those future seasons, he’d gain that extra year of control, though it would likely come with an extra year of arbitration.

For now, Cruz has the power to hit his way to an earlier exit from Pittsburgh.

Quite literally, in fact.

To kick things off this week, I’ll be looking at all of the questions surrounding Cruz for his debut. First Pitch continues below…

FUQUAY VINYL PLAYLIST

While you guys are reading tomorrow’s articles on Pirates Prospects, I’ll be seeing Denzel Curry and redveil live. Both are featured on the playlist this week.

THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR RACE

The National League Rookie of the Year race is wide open right now.

Brendan Donovan of the Cardinals is the current fWAR leader on FanGraphs, with a 1.4 WAR thanks for a .315/.424/.434 line.

Jack Suwinski of the Pirates is fifth among position players, with an 0.9 WAR, but has as many or more home runs than any two NL rookies. Voters love counting stats, so that could be significant.

On the pitching side, MacKenzie Gore had an early lead, but has been joined by Spencer Strider of the Braves as 1+ WAR pitchers.

Roansy Contreras currently ranks tenth among pitchers, with an 0.5 WAR. I think it would be difficult for him to catch the other two, especially with his lack of innings in his career.

At this point, the biggest disadvantage that Cruz has is the late start. He’s 11 home runs behind Suwinski, who is hitting a 40-homer pace over a 550 at-bat season right now. And that’s just one player. There are a lot of rookies who have about a 50-game head start on Cruz, and have already built up their counting stats.

I think the most exciting thing about Cruz is that, even with the head start from everyone else, his bat can do a lot of damage in a small amount of time to even entertain this question.

We have a special Prospect Roundtable today, looking deeper at the possibility of Cruz finishing top two in the Rookie of the Year race.

Prospect Roundtable: What Are Oneil Cruz’s Chances in the Rookie of the Year Race?

THE DEFENSE AT SHORTSTOP

What the Pirates have done so far with Cruz is pretty common.

Essentially, they’ve tried the same old service time manipulation we’ve always seen from small market teams. The only wrench thrown into that process by the new CBA is the Rookie of the Year stipulation. In addition to giving Cruz a late start — and I think it’s funny he arrives a day after Suwinski hits three homers — the Pirates probably won’t be playing him every single game the rest of the year to maximize his chances.

The big question surrounding Cruz is his defense at shortstop. He’s made some errors in the minors, though he’s also capable of plays that no other shortstop can make. The former is factual in the stat sheet. The latter is more speculative in how that could mitigate the errors.

If you look at the best shortstops in the majors this year, there aren’t many bad defenders. At worst, you have players who are replacement-level defensively, with strong offensive value.

The hope for Cruz is more of the latter. His defense at shortstop is going to be too inconsistent to give him positive value. The bat will absolutely stand out at the shortstop position, but that means little if his actual defense shows he doesn’t belong there.

The Pirates have given Cruz almost exclusive work at shortstop in the time he’s been in the system, spanning across two front offices. He wants to play the position. He doesn’t show the consistency needed to provide positive defense there.

I don’t think the Pirates have done anything wrong by Cruz in the long-term at this point with the delayed promotion. They’re just playing by the rules established in MLB, even if those are arguably unfair.

I do think the Pirates need to give Cruz the shortstop position, and make that his to lose.

There’s a good chance he will eventually lose it. Liover Peguero is projected as a better defender, with a solid bat. Cruz would have at least a year to show what he can do before being moved off the position. That might be enough to get some kind of objective defensive stat line on him, and will be plenty of time to get a live opinion.

Ultimately, I think the Pirates could do damage if they spend Cruz’s whole minor league career at shortstop, only to not give him a fair chance in the majors.

Cruz hasn’t done much work in the outfield, which is a better long-term home for him. I think he might fit best with the Pirates at first base, in theory, because that is a position he hasn’t played at all. The designated hitter spot might be an option.

I wrote two weeks ago about how I ultimately don’t think Cruz will be part of the next Pirates contender. I used the term “trade chip”, with the Tampa Bay Rays/Delmon Young trade from 2008 on my mind.

This doesn’t mean I see Cruz being traded this year, or that it’s inevitable he gets traded. I just think it’s very possible he loses value when the reality kicks in that he has no long-term defensive spot developed.

I also think the defense puts a lot of pressure on the bat, and while everyone is currently dreaming of monster numbers from Cruz, those dreams can also be dashed by reality. Cruz has an OPS of .847 this month in Triple-A, though it comes with a reduction in strikeouts, which is good long-term. He’s yet to really put up the monster offensive numbers that people are hoping for in the majors.

An .800+ OPS works if Cruz can play passable defense at shortstop. If he has to move to another position, there will be more focus on the bat, especially since his lack of experience anywhere else will likely lead to more negative defensive value.

The Pirates owe it to Cruz to give him a chance at shortstop. It would also be beneficial to them to try and maximize his value.

STAR PROSPECTS

Oneil Cruz is a star.

Already.

Some might object to that classification, because he’s barely played in the majors, and is just now getting his first opportunity to stick at the level. And thus, you might object to my idea that he should just be given the shortstop position — minor league errors be damned.

We classify stars as people who have “earned” the title through MLB performance. We treat them in a different way, imagining how they can lead the team to contending, and worrying about extending their control to distant, future years.

Cruz might not be a proven star in the majors yet.

He has certainly been treated like a star.

That’s the paradox with today’s prospect game. There is so much hype placed on guys who are being graded by projection alone. Oneil Cruz has yet to do anything significant in the majors — outside of a late 2021 home run off one knee — but he’s already being treated like a star.

Objectively, the Pirates treated him different than any other rookie. For example, they weren’t concerned about Super Two or the Rookie of the Year voting with Suwinski. They just let him develop and work through his problems in the majors, after an unexpected callup early in the season.

While Suwinski and everyone else have a more spontaneous feel to their opportunities, what has happened with the Pirates and Cruz feels very planned.

When the team itself puts so much effort into worrying about having Cruz under control in 2028, and making sure he doesn’t make big money before 2026, then how else should anyone on the outside view him?

Shouldn’t we be calling him a star already if the team cares more about his 2028 than their own 2022?

Or, do we just chalk that up to the team doing their due diligence to maximize value in the event that he does become a star?

The problem with this process is that Cruz will inevitably lose value. I discussed that above in terms of defensive and overall on-field value. There’s also a certain shine that prospects enjoy, which can quickly wear off — especially in Pittsburgh.

I’ve seen Andrew McCutchen get booed for a bad season in Pittsburgh. I’m talking post-MVP McCutchen. This is a hardcore sports town, and certain parts of the fanbase can react harshly to individual short-term struggles. Whatever positive projections we’re making for Cruz that involve Rookie of the Year, or any future contending season, we need to realize two things:

1. He is likely to make mistakes early on both sides of the ball, as any rookie will do. It might take him some time to statistically reach his current level of hype.

2. Pirates fans will absolutely temper their expectations on him once reality kicks in. If night is always darkest before the dawn, then a prospect’s value is always highest before his debut. Right now there are a lot of Pirates fans who have unrealistic expectations, even for Cruz. Some of them will sour on him for not reaching those expectations, even if he has positive value in the majors.

I’m guilty of the second part.

I certainly hyped up Gregory Polanco over the years, choosing to buy into the unique toolset that allows you to dream of future possibilities. When you’re dreaming of lofty things that haven’t happened yet, it makes it easier to ignore the very real things that currently exist to detract value.

I think there’s a real possibility that we’re dreaming of the bat with Cruz to the point that we’re just ignoring the defense — or the fact that his long swing can be prone to swing and miss, which reduces value.

Cruz could arrive and be a good player, but if he’s not a 5 WAR star, he will disappoint some people.

As a prospect writer, I don’t know how to address this phenomenon.

I could take the same approach I took with Polanco. I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two players. I’ve had the opportunity to follow each of them from teenage days, and can say that Cruz always came across as more confident. Perhaps that’s why his louder skills have translated better into games in the minors.

I could take that same approach and have a completely Pollyannaish view of Cruz. Short-term, that would draw in a lot of people who are riding the high of possibility right now, and want to find someone else who is sharing those lofty expectations. Long-term, there’s enough risk with Cruz that Polanco should serve as some kind of lesson to everyone.

I don’t want to take the opposite approach of completely focusing on the flaws of Cruz and downplaying the skills that make the Pirates treat him like a star before he even arrives. Yet with current hype levels, it’s impossible to downplay anything and not appear as if you’re tearing the whole player down.

When I dream of the possibility of Cruz’s future, I can see a path to 50 home runs a year. His power is that ridiculous, better than anyone I’ve seen in my time covering the Pirates — and that includes Pedro Alvarez. From a raw power standpoint, they are comparable. In terms of applicable, in-game power, I’d say Cruz has the edge.

Alvarez is another cautionary tale about prospect stars.

It’s difficult finding the middle ground, though. I wrote that article two weeks ago with an opinion that ran counter to the optimistic group, downplaying Cruz. I didn’t even expect the reaction that received — mostly because I’ve forgotten what happens when you give a unique opinion. For all I know, something in this article may set off the same type of reaction.

I wrote a follow-up article last week, taking the stance that Cruz should be able to dictate his future. That’s not a popular opinion in the age where we treat prospects like stars, but don’t give them the right to act like stars.

Take it from my MF DOOM inspired introduction of The Producer in last week’s column: A real star does things that you wouldn’t expect or see from anyone else, and just leaves everyone to react to something they haven’t seen.

Oneil Cruz has the potential to be a star, by that definition, as he can do things no one else can do. He will ultimately leave us all reacting.

This is an exciting day, seeing the beginning of Cruz’s time in Pittsburgh. That’s filled with lofty expectations for the short-term and long-term. Those expectations will be nearly impossible for Cruz to live up to, which will lead to an inevitable drop in his value — either on-field, or fan perception.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be valuable to the Pirates. It just means it’s currently difficult to agree on what that future value will become.

PRESENT AND FUTURE PIRATES LINEUP

Just for fun, let’s run down the present and future Pirates lineup, to see where the rebuild stands.

Catcher – The Pirates are currently piecing this together, with Henry Davis making his way up through Altoona. He may be up by this time next year, under similar “Prospect Star” circumstances. Part of that Prospect Star label gets created by the team essentially building around a single prospect, as they’re doing in this case.

First Base – Michael Chavis is looking like a solid contributor, but the Pirates need a long-term option here. Mason Martin is the best short-term solution, but has really struggled to make contact in Triple-A lately, so he’s not a realistic short-term option right now.

Second Base – This position will get more competition with Cruz at shortstop. Nick Gonzales entered the year as the top prospect for the spot, but has dealt with some concerning swing and miss issues. This could be a position that Cruz could play as well, if he moves off short for Peguero.

Shortstop – At this point, the shortstop position needs to go to Cruz for a real shot. I think Peguero is the long-term solution, and he could arrive a year from now with Davis.

Third Base – Ke’Bryan Hayes is the present and long-term future here, after signing an extension prior to the season.

Corner Outfield – The Pirates have a lot of options here. Jack Suwinski looks like he’s moving into a regular role. The final spot is currently between Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, and Travis Swaggerty — with another group of prospects making their way up from Altoona. I like the depth the Pirates have built here.

Center Field – Bryan Reynolds is currently the guy, and is heating up after a slow start. The question is will he remain with the Pirates long-term?

Designated Hitter – With so many holes above, it’s difficult to project this position. The outfield group might be the best candidates for this spot, since that currently looks like the position with the biggest potential for excess. They also might be the best candidate to fill the first base role, so it’s hard to fully think about this position in the future.

SYSTEM THOUGHTS

**I love that Matt Gorski continues to hit in Altoona. The outfielder posted a 1.131 OPS in Greensboro, leading to a promotion to the higher level last month. Since moving up to Double-A, Gorski has a .277/.355/.530 line with five homers in 94 plate appearances. This is good to see that the offense wasn’t just a product of an older player repeating a level in a hitter friendly park. Altoona provides a more neutral environment, and the fact that Gorski continues to hit, and hit for power, is a positive sign that his success this year is the result of a legit change. We wrote about what was going well for Gorski after his promotion to Altoona.

**Matt Fraizer is an outfielder who crushed in Greensboro, only to struggle in Altoona. Fraizer currently has a .629 OPS with three homers at the level this year. He had a .928 OPS last week, but no homers. Fraizer has seen a few good weeks this year, but has been inconsistent over the long-term with his production.

**Now that Cruz is up, I think the next obvious promotion candidates from Triple-A will be Ji-hwan Bae and Cody Bolton. Bae could factor into the second base mix, while Bolton could challenge for the rotation, or a long-relief role. I’m interested to see if Carter Bins gets an opportunity. He has a .672 OPS in Triple-A, but is coming off a .913 OPS week with his third homer at the level in 82 plate appearances. Bins profiles as a defensive backup to Henry Davis in the future, and the Pirates need catching this year. If the bat improves consistently enough by the end of the year, I could see him getting a shot in the majors.

**Watching Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows throwing on the same day is a nice reminder of the pitching help that is on the way. I think both pitchers could arrive at some point in 2023. Burrows is a step ahead in Triple-A, and might even follow a similar path as Roansy Contreras, making a brief debut this year.

**My early look at next year’s prospect group arriving in Pittsburgh: Henry Davis, Liover Peguero, Burrows, Priester, and maybe even Nick Gonzales if he turns things around. Between this year’s group, and next year’s potential boost, the Pirates are getting to the point where they should start adding help from the outside to assist these prospects.

WEEKLY PIRATES QUIZ

Hint: There is an extra “C” in the name of the 2008 outfielder.

PIRATES LINKS

**Pittsburgh Baseball Now’s Top 30 Pirates Prospects: Numbers 5-1 – Cody Potanko, Anthony Murphy, and Jeff Reed finish off their individual prospect rankings over at Pittsburgh Baseball Now.

**North Shore Tavern Mound Visit: Bad swings can bring Cruz’s best results – Alex Stumpf has a breakdown of the swing tendencies from Cruz, including the ability to hit those low pitches a long way.

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Last week we wrapped up our initial look at the rookie leagues, which completes our first half run through the system.

In tomorrow’s article drop, I’ll be looking at how the rebuild is going, with a look at some of the new development approaches the Pirates are employing. I’ll be focused on those types of topics for the next few weeks, leading up to the always busy periods of the draft and trade deadline in July.

PROSPECT WATCH

DAILY VIDEO RUNDOWN

PIRATES DISCUSSION

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KirkV12

Looks like the site’s opinion of Nick Gonzales has trended down from his poor early performance more than with any of the other top 7 prospects. Cruz was off to a similarly slow start before heating up, Priester was out for the first third of the year, and Henry Davis has shown a dangerous proclivity to HBP that led to and may continue to lead to injury. It seemed like Gonzales was turning things around a little, at least with the average, before his injury (any timeline on that btw? Pirates management seems determined to play off absolutely everything as “day to day” when it may really be more like month-to-month). And his XBH and plate patience kept the OPS afloat near .730 even when he was hitting .220.

Is it purely the strikeouts that lead to greater concern with Gonzales than other slow starting prospects? If he came back and struck out closer to 20-25% for the remainder of the season, would there still be concern for his long-term outlook? In other words, what would it take for Gonzales to quell concerns this year?

tedwins

Bae, broken record tedwins, is our 2nd baseman of the future…. Anyways, fun day, exciting day, welcome back to the buccos Mr. Cruz👍

skliesen

I kept putting in child rapist as one of the answers for the quiz and it didn’t accept it, even though I know it’s correct.

Mblee24

I forgot about Meek and Correia I guess I was spelling wrong! haha

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

As of now, I’d say Strider looks like the clear NL ROY frontrunner. Kid is electric.

Anthony Murphy

Lip lettuce game makes his case that much better

EightMenOut

In May I saw Cruz get about 9 at bats against the Charlotte Knights. Eigth at bat was a very hard line drive over the high left wall on an outside pitch, very few MLB players could hit the ball that hard, opposite field, low trajectory, home run, so yeah, he does things that others do not. What really struck me though was how few good pitches he saw to hit in those nine at bats, everything was low and away, or lower and more away. The minor league pitchers seem totally ok to walk him, and while as a minor league hitter you need to develop an eye and plate patience, it also does you little good to get at bat after at bat with very few pitches in the strike zone.   I think in the pros Cruz will ironically see a lot better pitches to hit, because in the pros walks matter. For instance, minor league game, 1-1 in the fifth no one out, sure, walk Cruz rather than have him hit a home run off of you and make your stats look bad. In the majors, you don’t want to walk him in that situation, and you are a major league pitcher, so you go right at him, and Cruz now sees a hittable pitch in the majors that he didn’t see in the minors. Point being, if he lays off the pitches out of the zone, he may see a lot of pitches in the zone that he wasn’t seeing in the minors.

Last edited 16 days ago by EightMenOut
MShaeffer4444

The minor leagues are the pros…

Bill

Cherington, approaching one month anniversary of 18-4 loss to Cardinals:

C2300C94-711B-4773-BD54-5E736409D94A.jpeg
jaygray007

I really think we all need to calibrate our expectations on Liover Peguero. He’s obviously a solid prospect but I think deeming him the SS of the future is just a little misguided. We have no idea what he’s going to be.

2021.. solid-enough high-.700s OPS, but in a hitting environment. relatively concerning 25 pct K rate, but still young. Nothing here worth deeming him a stud. Nothing here worth deeming him a bust.

2022… solid-enough high-.700s OPS, fixed the K problems. Excellent april. horrible may-june. Quite young. Nothing here worth deeming him a stud. Nohting here worth deeming him a bust.

I’m not saying that Peguero will not be good. I’m saying that there’s really not anything here that should make us convinced that he’s particularly good yet.

I’ll just make it clear that I overall like him by saying that i think he’s a better prospect than Nick Gonzales.

Cruz has checked of so so many more boxes than peguero, so i just feel like we might have our probabilities a little wonky if we are handing the long term spot to peguero in our theoretical 2024 lineups.

ricramer

Hopefully Peguero goes to Indy now to continue to develop.

jedeweese

Bae continues to impress me, I find it extraordinary that he has not been up yet. (I do not see him getting his shot until Newman gets traded, (DFA’d?), as well as “due diligence?!?” gets accomplished on some of the AAAA players taking up his time and ABs.
Exciting times…

jaygray007

they have so so so many 2b guys already on the 40 man that they have to evaluate, that i cant imagine they muddy things further by adding a guy to the 40 man before they have to.

his season is *extremely* promising though.

skliesen

He appears to be a far better “baseball player” than Castillo, Castro, Park, and even Marcano. Certainly better than the two roster filling vets who have played 2B this year. He doesn’t have the power of Castro or Castillo, but Pirates will score more runs with him at top of lineup than they would with anyone else batting lead off.

Ideal Pirates lineup after trade deadline:

1. Bae 2B
2. Hayes 3B
3. Reynolds CF
4. Cruz SS
5. Suwinski RF
6. Gorski 1B
7. Swaggerty LF
8. Castillo/Castro DH
9. Bins C

#LetTheKidsPlay

jedeweese

Gorski won’t sniff ML until POSSIBLY mid-summer next year; I don’t have a bit of problem with the any of the rest of it, but Madris and Mitchell will be in the mix somewhere.

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

But most of the 2B guys are likely utility bench types, and I feel should be evaluated as such. By using them in such a role.

jaygray007

i’m not necessarily saying what i think they SHOULD do. I’m just predicting what they WILL do.

Remember Newman and VanMeter are coming back too…

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

Bill

Yes and at least he is getting everyday AB’s in Indy, whereas Shelton’s sporadic middle infield utilization could screw him up

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