Towering Pirates shortstop eyeing major league spot | News, Sports, Jobs

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz plays during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Associated Press

BRADENTON, Fla. — Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Ben Gamel watched in awe as Oneil Cruz as the 6-foot-7 shortstop prospect almost dropped to one knee before sending out a pitch that looked like it was about to bouncing past home plate navigating the right-center fence.

The home run Cruz hit in Pittsburgh’s Grapefruit League opener on Saturday was nearly identical to his first major league home run last October.

“He’s pretty talented, man” Gamel said of Cruz. “He looks like a big leaguer.”

That’s the plan.

The towering shortstop Cruz is an anomaly, not only in his position but in his sport. He’s built like a basketball player, but has a rare combination of size, speed, power, athleticism, and arm strength that makes him hard to categorize.

Considered one of the mainstays of Pittsburgh’s rebuilding project, the 23-year-old Cruz is shaping up to be the potential five-tool player the Pirates desperately need after a 101-game losing season and a third-straight last-place finish in the NL Central. Cruz has made no secret of his desire to stay in the majors after a cameo appearance last fall.

“That’s the goal, that’s the mindset – not just to get to the big leagues, but to stay in the big leagues,” said Cruz, who hit his second home run of the spring on similar ground on Monday. “So my mindset right now is to work twice.”

The Pirates were impressed with how the Dominican Republic native recovered from a forearm strain last summer to drop .292/.346/.536 with 15 doubles, five trebles, 12 home runs and 40 RBIs in 63 games at Double-A Altoona, so they promoted him to Triple-A Indianapolis in mid-September. When he went 11 for 21 (.524) with five homers in six games, the Pirates brought Cruz to Pittsburgh to play the final two games of the season.

In his MLB debut against the Cincinnati Reds, Cruz chained a single that had the fastest exit speed (118.2 mph) in Pirates history in Statcast’s time. In the season finale, Cruz made an 0-2 change at 408 feet in the right field seats at PNC Park.

Cruz, however, is likely tagged to start the regular season at Triple-A Indianapolis. Pirates manager Derek Shelton called his October call-up for two games per “reward,” what general manager Ben Cherington explained was based on how Cruz responded to the challenges presented to him during spring training last year.

Both Cherington and Shelton have said they want Cruz to experiment with other positions — primarily in the outfield — which is an experience better suited to the minor leagues than the majors.

“There is still development to be done there”, Shelton said. “Oneil is going to impact our club this year at some point. When it does, I don’t think any of us know.

Cruz’s development was delayed by the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. After spending this summer at alternate training site Altoona, he has just 310 at-bats above the Class A level. With the return of Gold Glove finalist Kevin Newman to shortstop With a one-year, $1.95 million contract and little chance of a fight, the Pirates aren’t feeling any rush to see Cruz start the season at the majors.

“We’re just excited to see more Oneil,” said Cherington.

Cruz is adamant about wanting to stay at shortstop. When asked about playing other positions, he said it was not discussed. Then he dropped his massive hand to mimic a Grounder’s alignment and slapped him.

“I will stay here” said Cruz. “At shortstop.”

Cruz then checked off a list of players whose style of play he admires: Corey Seager. Manny Machado. Nolan Arenado. Francois Lindor. All of them happen to be infielders. Cruz clearly displays his preference.

While Shelton professed his love for Cruz’s confidence, the Pirates have a gaping hole in their roster in right field after releasing Gregory Polanco last August. Like Cruz, Polanco was a projected top prospect for stardom. Sports Illustrated tagged it “The next big thing.” Instead, he became a bust. If Cruz is willing and able to transition to the outfield, it could lead to a quicker path to the majors.

“I feel like I’ve demonstrated a lot” Cruz said, “but I guess I just have to keep protesting.”

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