Bucs prospect Cruz called up for MLB debut

6-foot-7 shortstop becomes tallest to start at spot in AL/NL history

October 3rd, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates broke camp in Spring Training and players headed into their respective seasons, they outlined a number of challenges for shortstop Oneil Cruz, the club’s No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline.

Cruz tackled those challenges time and time again this season, and in turn, the Bucs promoted the No. 52 overall prospect to the Major League roster Saturday with two games left to play in the 2021 regular season.

“I think when we talk about accountability, it runs both ways,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He was very accountable when he was in [Double-A] Altoona and when he went to [Triple-A] Indianapolis. So if you want to call it a little bit of a reward for that, I would say that’s fair."

The left-handed-hitting Cruz started at shortstop in the Pirates’ 8-6 win over the Reds on Saturday night, when he went 2-for-5 with a pair of singles -- one hit at 118.2 mph -- and his first RBI.

Cruz (6-foot-7) made history when he took the field due to his immense build, as he became the tallest Pirates position player in team history and the tallest shortstop to start a game in AL/NL history. He’s the third position player in the Majors to measure 6-foot-7, joining the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and the Astros’ Taylor Jones.

“He’s a unicorn,” third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes said. “He’s [6-foot-7], hitting balls 600 feet. He has a cannon. I’m just excited he’s getting this opportunity. I can’t wait to watch him play.”

Cruz leaves Triple-A in the midst of a fiery stretch to end a strong Minor League season. The phenom hit five homers in his final six games with Indianapolis, including four straight games with a homer. That led to video game numbers on the line at Triple-A, like a .655 OBP and 1.941 OPS.

Cruz was part of a stacked lineup at Altoona, where they struggled to fit all their priority position players in the batting order every night. But over them all he still towered, ranking first in slugging percentage (.536) and OPS (.882), while placing second in batting average (.292) in 62 games with the Curve.

"I always make this joke when someone says, 'Oh, that's crazy [how Oneil] Cruz is doing this,’" said Pirates No. 18 prospect Cal Mitchell, Cruz’s teammate in Altoona. “I say, 'Well, that's what happens when Kevin Durant was born in the Dominican and decided to be a baseball player.'"

The Pirates have kept the Dominican native at his natural shortstop position, but his 70-grade arm and 16 errors in 59 games this season have raised questions about a potential move to the outfield. So far, nothing has come about in games as far as a positional switch.

Cruz missed a good portion of the season with a right elbow injury, and the 22-year-old was slow-played back into the field with some DH appearances after he was activated on Aug. 20.

Cruz is one of two top prospects to make his debut in the past week for Pittsburgh. Roansy Contreras, the Bucs’ No. 6 prospect, made his MLB debut with three scoreless innings Wednesday against the Cubs.

These are minor appearances in the box score, but the club hopes that playing a big league game or two will motivate the duo in the offseason.

“It’s important to get a little taste. Regardless of how small of a taste of the big leagues, it’s still the big leagues,” Shelton said. “It’s different from every place else. [These are] the best players in the world. Any time you can get acclimated, I think it’s important.”