A 6’6” shortstop? This prospect may break mold

August 21st, 2019

When Rafael Cruz brought his son home from the local hospital in Nizao, D.R., the former Minor League infielder put an old leather baseball glove by the newborn’s crib.

The son was going to be a ballplayer, just like his father, Rafael said. It was his destiny. And it didn’t matter if the kid grew up to throw with his right hand or left hand, but he was definitely going to hit left-handed just like his father’s baseball idol, Paul O’Neill.

Rafael even named his son after the Yankees great. Twenty years later, Pirates shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz is busy making his own mark. Oneil, who signed with the Dodgers for $950,000 in 2015, is now the Pirates’ No. 3 prospect. and No. 60 on MLB's Top 100 Prospects list.

“I really liked Paul O’Neill as a player,” Rafael, 53, said in Spanish from his home in the Dominican Republic. “The way he played and his form. His style. I identified with him and followed him. I became a big fan.”

Oneil throws from the right side, just like his father, and he’s a left-handed hitter because his father trained him to hit that way. Rafael, who played three seasons in Minors with the Rangers in the mid-80s, hit from both sides of the plate.

“From the time he was a little boy, I took him to the park so he could play and see what he was going to get into it,” Rafael said. “I’d take him everywhere and he grew up with baseball around him. It’s our family passion. I played. We have had uncles and cousins who were all players, but none of us made it to the big leagues. It would be great if Oneil was the first one.”

At 6-foot-6, Cruz has a chance to become the tallest player in Major League history to start a game at shortstop. Joel Guzman, who is 6-foot-7, played a total of nine innings at shortstop across three games for the Rays in 2007, but no player taller than 6-foot-5 has ever started a game at short. And the list of 6-foot-5 players to have started at the position is a short one: Archi Cianfrocco, Troy Glaus and Mike Morse.

Whether Cruz sticks at shortstop remains to be seen, but the odds of him reaching the big leagues appear to be in his favor. Yes, the 20-year-old may still be a year or two away, but he has as much raw power as anyone in the Pirates’ farm system. He is also batting .307 across three levels in 60 games despite missing two months with a foot fracture this season. Cruz has hit seven homers, and if the season ended today, his average and slugging percentage would both be career highs.

The Pirates plan on keeping the tall infielder at the shortstop until further notice.

“He’s come a long way in a lot of areas,” Pirates farm director Larry Broadway said. “He’s learning to show up for every pitch at shortstop, learning how to better control his hitting zone, learning how to prepare overall. He’s dealt with some injuries and has come out on the other side ready to compete and take the next step forward.”

Cruz was working with Dominican Republic trainer Raul “Banana” Valera when the Dodgers found him five years ago. The teen was wiry and athletic and probably six inches shorter than he stands today. What stood out was his loose, adjustable swing and how the ball jumped off of his bat with little effort. He walks with confidence now -- some call it swagger-- and he plays with style and flair, but he was mostly shy and quiet during those early days with the Dodgers.

Experience made him a leader. He has assumed the role of big brother to his teammates, especially the ones from Latin America.

“I am happy and thankful to have the opportunity to play professional baseball it was always my dream,” Cruz said. “I want to establish myself in the big leagues and help my team win.”

The Dodgers spent $48 million on the 2015-16 international class and were charged another $48 million in overage taxes after obliterating their bonus pools amount. In addition to Cruz, the group of signees included Yadier Alvarez ($16 million) and Yusniel Diaz ($15 million). The Dodgers signed Yordan Alvarez for $2 million in the summer of 2016 and traded him to the Astros two months later.

The Dodgers eventually traded Cruz and Minor League pitcher Angel German in exchange for left-handed pitcher Tony Watson at the Trade Deadline the next year.

“The biggest adjustment was being traded from the Dodgers to the Pirates,” Cruz said. “I had to get to know new teammates and coaches. I made adjustments at the plate with the Pirates. Also, every level you get promoted the pitchers are better and throw better offspeed.”

Cruz slashed .286/.343/.488 for Class A West Virginia in his first full season in the Pirates’ organization in 2018. He started this season at Class A Advanced Bradenton and was promoted to Double-A Altoona late last month. Like most players his age, he's working on the finer points of being a professional ballplayer. 

“I think it’s great for him to realize that there are players out there right now that are better than him, and he can’t just rely on skill to get through the upper levels or get away with things when he gets to the Major Leagues,” Altoona manager Michael Ryan said. “He’s only 20 years old. It’s crazy. You see how long and athletic he is, you see what he can do on the field, you just try to mix in the proper work and try to prepare him for the speed of the game.”

When Cruz isn’t on the field or at the gym, he’s on the phone with his father and siblings. Oneil’s brother, Homer, plays in the Dominican Summer League for the White Sox. His youngest brother, Rafael Jr., will be eligible to sign during the next international signing period that starts July 2.

There’s also lots of baby talk with Oneil Cruz Jr., the infielder’s 1-year-old son. Someday, Junior will follow his father’s footsteps into the family business. The littlest Oneil will also get to hear all about grandpa’s favorite player and how his father took ownership of the name game.

“I don’t know anything about Paul O’Neill,” Oneil Cruz said. “That’s all my dad.”