Oneil dazzles in '22 debut, displays 'unreal' tools

June 21st, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- This was one game. Not every night will be as enthralling, as crisp, as sharp. Mistakes will be made. Losses will be taken. But on a gloomy Monday, the Pirates not only shined, but took the next step towards fielding their next potential contender.

In his eagerly-anticipated season debut, a game the Pirates won 12-1 over the Cubs, looked every bit the potential star. The numbers -- two hits, two runs, four RBIs -- were fantastic, yes, but they were only half the joy. He ran hard. He hit the ball hard. He threw the ball hard. There was substance to the hype, and if this game is any indication of what’s to come, the future looks like a lot of fun.

“When you start to see these kids come up -- we’ve made some challenging moves -- but to see them come up and start to piece it together, it makes you smile a little bit,” said manager Derek Shelton.

Every single one of Cruz’s tools was on display on a night when he was a walking highlight. He's established himself as a Statcast superstar, and in his first game this season, he’s already out here setting records. On his third-inning assist on a Willson Contreras groundout, Cruz threw the ball 96.7 mph across the diamond. That’s the hardest-thrown ball on any infield assist this season, and the third-hardest since the stat first began to be recorded in 2015.

“The way it hangs in the air is a little bit different,” said first baseman Michael Chavis, who received the throw. “The same way [with] a guy that's pitching, a guy that throws really hard, it hangs up on it a little more, the ride or whatever you want to call it. It's pretty much the same thing where I thought it was going to go down, and it just hung.”

There was also his track meet of a second inning. Cruz recorded a sprint speed of 30.7 ft/sec. when he reached on an error, 29.9 ft/sec. going from first-to-third, then capped it off with 31.5 ft/sec. scoring on a sacrifice fly. For context, 30 ft/sec. is considered elite. Even with all the numbers, the eye test would have sufficed.

If the arm strength and sprint speed weren’t enough, Cruz's bases-clearing double had an exit velocity of 112.9 mph, the hardest hit ball by a Pirate this season. He’s almost single-handedly breaking Statcast and, well, he wouldn’t mind doing so.

​​”Whatever’s going to get broken is going to get broken,” the Dominican native Cruz said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez.

“Guy’s unreal,” raved outfielder Bligh Madris prior to the game in which the fellow Bucs rookie became the first MLB player from Palau. “He has tools that come around once every 100 years. He’s special, to say the least. He can do things with the bat. He can hit pitches out of the ballpark that some guys are lucky to get out of the infield. It’s unbelievable being able to see what he can do.”

Not to be lost in the excitement of Cruz's night was the performance of Madris in his Major League debut. Madris didn’t just get his first three career hits, but his first two RBIs and first stolen base as well. Shelton described Madris’ ascension to the Majors as an “organizational win,” citing many people in the baseball operations department who have poured time and energy into Madris’ development.

“There are a lot of people who have helped me get to this point and helped build me as a player,” Madris said. “I’m really thankful for all those people.”

Should this organization continue to stack up a few more wins, then the destination that is winning baseball -- consistent winning baseball -- will continue to come closer into view.

The Pirates, as of right now, are still building, still developing, but the pieces are beginning to stack up. Cruz is arguably the single toolsiest player in baseball; Ke’Bryan Hayes is one of the best defenders in baseball; Bryan Reynolds is a reigning All-Star who’s heating up; David Bednar looks on his way to being an All-Star in his own right; Jack Suwinski leads all rookies in home runs; and there’s all the talent that’s growing, both here and down on the farm.

This was just one night. Not every night will be as enthralling, as crisp, as sharp. Mistakes will be made. Losses will be taken. But on this Monday night, the Pirates inched a little closer to reaching their final, idealized form. The future is coming, and the future looks like the place to be.