Williams: How Can the Pirates Replace Oneil Cruz?

If all goes well, Oneil Cruz will be rejoining the Pittsburgh Pirates after the trade deadline.

Cruz underwent surgery last night, and the Pirates anticipate his return in four months.

The team he left saw him leading off in front of Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Santana. Perhaps all three will still be there in August. Perhaps they’ll be joined by a trade acquisition, rather than watching that trio deplete at the deadline. Perhaps the Pirates will still have a winning record by that point.

In order for that last “perhaps” to take place, the Pirates will need to figure out how to replace Oneil Cruz.

Cruz himself hasn’t reached irreplaceable status just yet. He does have that potential, and comes with the intimidation factor of a 6′ 7″ giant who can crush a baseball into the stands with an easy swing of the bat. No one else in this system can replace the potential that Cruz brings to the table. The disappointing thing about this injury is that it felt like Cruz was heading into that potential.

In response to the move, the Pirates have called up Mark Mathias, who is starting at second base tonight. Ji-Hwan Bae is getting a night off, and Rodolfo Castro is getting the start at shortstop. I’d expect Bae to get regular time between second, short, and center, with Castro moving back and forth between the middle infield spots.

Ke’Bryan Hayes moves up to take Cruz’s spot at the top of the order ahead of Reynolds, McCutchen, and Santana. I like this move, as it protects Hayes in the way that Cruz was protected. It does create a hole around the fifth spot of the order, with Ji-Man Choi dealing with strikeout issues.

That’s where the impact of Cruz might be felt the most: Those 5-7 spots, where guys like Choi, Castro, Jack Suwinski, and Canaan Smith-Njigba have been putting up strikeout rates north of 30%. That group now gets moved up higher in the order, and the Pirates need to rely on someone from that group more often. Castro will likely be that guy, due to his ability to play shortstop.

Essentially, it looks like the Pirates are replacing Cruz with Castro, and replacing Castro on the bench with Mathias. That’s going to negatively impact the team, possibly by a few wins. This is already a team that had most people projecting a high-60s win total. They’ve looked better than that in their first nine games.

I’m reminded of the 2002 Pirates season. They got off to a hot start in April, before a young Aramis Ramirez sprained his ankle in a brawl. The consequences of the injury are quite different, yet surrounded by a team off to an unexpected hot start, and a brawl. I bring this up because the Pirates lost their momentum shortly after Ramirez went down.

That 2002 team didn’t have a Ke’Bryan Hayes caliber player to step in and replace their young star. This will provide an opportunity for Hayes to emerge with the bat. He’s made some of the hardest contact in the game over the last year. His launch angle has led to a high ground ball rate, which isn’t what you want to be productive.

Here’s where the good news comes in:

In his career, Hayes has an average launch angle of 5 degrees. That is ground ball territory. The result has been a 51.3% career ground ball rate, which isn’t a profile conducive to power — the main thing missing from his game.

This year, the launch angle is up to 19 degrees in the young season. While the stats aren’t there, Hayes is getting the ball off the ground consistently. His ground ball rate has plummeted to 35.5% and his fly ball rate has soared to 54.8%. He’s not hitting the ball quite as hard as last year, but he’s still hitting the ball hard.

The most important thing is that Hayes is consistently getting the ball off the ground. That will lead to results better than we’ve seen from him so far.

Right now I feel he might be in a territory where he’s gone too far to the opposite extreme — hitting the ball too high and getting away from line drives completely. When he dials that in to a more productive ratio, he will be an impactful hitter who can replace Cruz in that top spot.

How the Pirates replace Cruz lower in the lineup will require someone else to step up. We’ll see tonight if anyone starts to answer the call.


**Tucupita Marcano was named the International League Player of the Week. It makes sense that Mathias got the call over him. Other than tonight’s game, Ji-Hwan Bae seems to already be a regular starter, just without a regular position. Rodolfo Castro seems like the guy who will move into a more regular role. Mark Mathias will essentially get the first shot off the bench, while Marcano continues getting daily time. I think Marcano would be the option if he continues hitting and Castro struggles in a more regular role.

**It was great to see Braxton Ashcraft returning to the mound last night with three shutout innings in Bradenton. Ashcraft struck out five and was sitting 95-97 MPH with his fastball. Ashcraft has missed about two years, but looked sharp in his return. He was taken in the same draft as Mike Burrows, for a look at how much development time his Tommy John cost him. Ashcraft could move quickly to Greensboro if he continues pitching like this.

**If we’re talking about depth, in addition to Marcano staying hit with two hits, the Pirates saw two hits each from Endy Rodriguez and Travis Swaggerty last night. There could be a game this summer where all three are starting in Pittsburgh.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Obviously this isn’t a very big sample, but here are rodolfo castro’s career splits.

vs RHP .603 OPS
vs LHP .901 OPS

i think a plan of giving Castro most of the time there has “overexposure of Castro” written all over it.

I think that NOT including Bae at SS vs RHP would be a mistake.

Get Bae some work in the OF and 2b vs some lefties and occasional righties to keep him developing there, fine.

if i’m running the real team, i’m going full SS platoon and planting Mathias at 2b.

if i’m running a *video game version of the team*, i’m moving carlos santana to 3b and Hayes to SS 😛

Last edited 1 month ago by jaygray007

that said, maybe its *okay* to overexpose Castro. maybe its okay to give him 4 months of everyday ABs, even if it costs the team a few 2024 wins compared to a optimized platoon.

there’s about a 95 percent chance that a sacrificed win or two will have zero tangible effect on the season.

“finding out about” castro wouldnt be the worst thing ever. either he is more than a lefty masher, or he isnt.

Last edited 1 month ago by jaygray007

I thought they might bring up Marcano, and try him at short when Cruz got hurt. At least against righties, but they brought up Mathias. If Marcano keeps hitting the next couple of weeks, they may still send down Mathias, and bring him up then.


This reminds me of what it felt like when Kang was injured in 2015. So much hope for that team. Still won 98 but should have won the division and never been in the WC game. This team is nowhere near that good but those first 9 games were reminiscent of that level of excitement.


Hayes ain’t stepping in and replacing anybody with the bat.


I think the Pirates should have Joe bat leadoff when he is in the lineup, and let McCutchen leadoff when he is not. They are the 2 getting on the most. Let Hayes bat 7 or 8 until and if he starts hitting.


incorrect. He could adequately replace Suwinski and Choi……in fact so could i


Two more hard hit balls today!!!

Both at negative launch angles.

It’s the Pirate Way.


So results haven’t been there but Hayes is actually hitting the hall at a positive launch angle for the first time ever. Averaging over 15 degrees compared to under 9 degrees last year. He has a number of warning track shots. Angle is only part of it, of course. He needs to pull the ball more if he wants home runs at a higher rate; but I’m tired of the small sample assumptions.

It simply is not the case that he isn’t making an effort and even succeeding. Will it translate?

Maybe not, but it’s early yet and spring training was a small sample as April has been. Let’s stop jumping to conclusions shall we?

Last edited 1 month ago by sewer2001

My dude, *you* are the one making the small sample assumption! Less than two weeks of baseball!

Do you ever stop and ask if you understand the words you write?


According to Statcast, almost the entirety of his additional air balls have come in the form of pop ups.

Of course that’s going to skew *average* launch angle upward in such a small sample.

Mishits do not mean improvement.


Hayes sucks


It makes perfect sense when you consider that typically BC’s AAAA pick ups have gotten off to terrific hot starts only to fizzle after two or three weeks. Ride a Hot Matthias while Marcano displays his glove in Indy. If things are cooling off quickly, and Tuco stays hot, we switch goaltenders around May Day. Grasping at straws but it’s all we got.

Last edited 1 month ago by Born4rf

BC bypassed all the Pirate Prospects who have worked hard within the Pirate Org to get an opportunity like this. Marcano is as hot as it gets, and has to wonder what else he has to do! SSDD.


How about actually improve!

He’s gotten the bat knocked out of his hands in two big league attempts. We know damn well what he has to do to succeed.

Is he hitting the ball any harder? Gained any strength?

His next triple digit ball in play will be his first of the entire season. I suppose that’s your answer.

Why are we pretending the big league outcomes would be any different if the player hasn’t improved.


he has to maintain it. that’s what. Mathias has already hit well in the majors, it isn’t like he did anything to LOSE that ability in the last 5 months


How about bringing up Endy to help offset some of the run production they’re likely to lose due to Cruz injury?

Unfortunately Super 2 means more than wins in Pittsburgh, so it won’t happen.


If he’s hitting by the end of the month, he’ll be up. Trust!

Last edited 1 month ago by NMR
b mcferren

but Shelton´s job is on the line


This is the perfect time to extend Cruz.


I didn’t think of that, but it makes sense.


and also the dumbest. who knows how this will affect his speed


Ronald acuna had the highest sprint speed so far. He’s a year removed from tearing his ACL


Question—-what is the reason for putting cruz on 10 day vs 60 day injured list


No need to make room on 40-man since Mathias is on the roster already. We can expect Cruz will be moved to 60-day IL once they need a spot.


Good points Tim. I wanted to see Marcano get the opportunity but you’re logic makes sense.

b mcferren

does this mean we can fire Shelton and trade Reynolds now?


Mathias should fit right in with Choi, Suwinski, etc as so far in Indy he’s been striking out 36% of his at bats as opposed to 10% for Marcano. Sure it makes sense that Mathias got the call over Marcano, in Pirate world anyway.


I hope Mathias gets semi-regular playing time as I did not consider him the old school dumpster diving addition. With Bae playing some center and Castro (IMO) also needing time off with Bae at SS, there should be several starts a week available. For now it looks like he may be part of a regular short side platoon although who is officially the other half of that may vary. As people have stated elsewhere, while the injury stinks it does provide some more at bats to continue the MLB tryouts with players who are at some level prospects / still trying to prove themselves.


Cruz’ absence isn’t going to matter as much as how Keller, Contreras, Oviedo and the bullpen continue to pitch. Pitching and Reynolds putting on the best Barry Bonds imitation since Barry Bonds is why they’re 6-3. If Reynolds can win the Triple Crown and our pitching holds up, we’re a contender.

Last edited 1 month ago by PiratePrimate

Cruz’s absence keeps him from developing which is about the most important thing imaginable, plus its service time we lose for nothing.


At first I didn’t like the Mathias move, but if he is going to be the bench/ultility guy then fine. Let’s see what Castro can do with some playing time.


Easy answer….they can’t.

Make the leadoff batter when he plays?

Bring Kevin Polcovich out of retirement? Does Gene Alley have anything left?


You are overlooking the most reasonable addition: Sammy Khalifa. He was making Hawaii proud back in 84 baby. Then that raker Rafael Belliard came and took his job……


I had high hopes for Sammy.

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