This past Spring Training, shortstop Dee Gordon brought tremendous excitement to Dodgers camp.
Scouts and player development personnel watched intently as Gordon seemed to steal bases with ease.
There was one instance when Gordon stole second base on the catcher's return throw to the pitcher. That really got the crowd buzzing.
With Gordon as their everyday shortstop, the Dodgers looked forward to the blazing speed he would bring to the lineup. Speed is Gordon's best tool. He was learning to maximize the most important component of his game. He was causing havoc on the bases.
Unfortunately, almost from the start of the season, Gordon struggled to reach base. He began to press. He searched for ways to reach base so he could use that game-changing speed.
On July 4, hitting only .229, Gordon jammed his thumb while sliding.
He had torn the ulnar collateral ligament of his right thumb, requiring surgery. His season was suddenly interrupted. Without warning, the Dodgers needed a shortstop.
Enter Luis Cruz.
What an impact he has had on the Dodgers ever since.
Cruz's timely hits, his ability to step up in high-pressure situations and his steady defense have been instrumental in the Dodgers' success.
Until this season, many would have termed Cruz a "journeyman" infielder. The 28-year-old right-handed hitting Cruz has played 1,223 games in the Minor Leagues. In a 12-year professional career, he's played only 68 Major League games.
Signed by the Boston Red Sox out of his native Mexico in 2000, Cruz is the son of Luis Cruz Sr., a former Mexican League home run-hitting outfielder.Prior to establishing himself this season as a very credible and complete player, Cruz had compiled 4,891 plate appearances in the Minor League organizations of the Dodgers, Red Sox, Padres, Pirates, Brewers and Rangers. He had a combined .261 Minor League batting average in parts of 12 seasons.
After becoming a free agent with Texas in November 2011, a number of teams expressed interest in signing Cruz. He believed his best opportunity for personal success, playing time and team success would be to sign with the Dodgers.
Cruz began this season with Triple-A Albuquerque. At the time of Gordon's injury, Cruz was hitting .318 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs, covering 305 plate appearances.
With little advance warning, Cruz was summoned to Los Angeles to help replace Gordon and play shortstop for the Dodgers. He has had tremendous success since his arrival in early July.
Cruz has earned the support and respect from Dodgers fans. A chorus of "Cruuuuuuuuz" greets him whenever he is introduced or comes to the plate. After 12 seasons, Cruz is relevant.
He is the type of player that makes things happen. He seems to be in the middle of rallies and seems to get the big hit when it's needed. He seems to make a big fielding play at the right time.
In short, since his promotion, Cruz has provided a spark that has kept the Dodgers in the midst of the National League playoff race.
The part of Cruz's game I like best is his ability to make contact at the plate. The ball makes that "special sound" when it comes off his bat. It's an indication he has centered the ball on the barrel -- the "money spot." He gets clutch hits. He doesn't get ruffled. He is composed and collected.
Cruz has the ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field, hitting the gaps for extra bases. He entered Saturday hitting .296 with 19 doubles and five home runs in 240 at-bats.
He has walked only nine times. However, his excellent contact ability has translated into him striking out a relatively low 30 times.
Holding his hands above his head in his pre-swing posture, Cruz drops his hands quickly and uses very good mechanics while moving his hips and lower body into the pitch. His swing is short and fairly level. His is a practiced and accomplished approach to hitting.
Cruz is very good at making the best of what a pitcher offers. He has an ability to read pitches well as he takes the ball where it is thrown. Good plate coverage and strong plate discipline have resulted in his credible .325 on-base percentage.
Defensively, Cruz more than gets the job done. He is a reliable infielder with a solid, accurate arm, soft hands, a quick first step and sufficient range to the ball. He is not error prone. He is a steady and versatile defender.
The arrival of Hanley Ramirez has altered Cruz's defensive role a bit. He has played 41 games at third base, 24 games at shortstop and two games at second base for the Dodgers.
It's the big hits -- the hits that matter -- that have placed Cruz's name on the lips of Dodgers fans.
It's his ability to drive in the go-ahead run, move up a baserunner or play proper, fundamentally sound defense that has endeared Cruz to the public.
Flashing enough raw power to be considered dangerous every time he comes to the plate, Cruz has been very productive in an offense that has had difficulty scoring runs.
Only 24, Gordon remains an infielder with tremendous upside. He will be playing winter ball in an effort to improve his on-base percentage.
The availability and experience of Cruz gives the Dodgers an outstanding player to ultimately complement the presence of both Gordon and Ramirez in the formation of deep and capable infield options.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners.